A recent study adds further evidence that we do. The study is a joint project between Rocky Mountain Wild and Keep Routt Wild quantifying the impacts of trail-based recreation on elk habitat in areas adjacent to Routt National Forest, and highlighted in a Feb. 24 steamboat pilot article. Quite frankly, I was one of the authors of the study, along with Steamboat Springs resident TJ Thrasher and Rocky Mountain Wild Geographic Information System Specialist Alison Gallensky.
JThe study was based on peer-reviewed research done by the US Forest Service on the behavior of elk in the presence of recreational activities. Using radio-collared elk, early researchers were able to quantify how elk avoided trails and recreationists in the presence of hikers, cyclists, horseback riders, and mountain bikers.
Our new analysis was to overlay these same “disturbance strips” on roads and trails over the 124,000 acre analysis area just east of Steamboat Springs, an area that supports a lot of recreation and is home to many species. wildlife. These disturbance bands indicate the distance from the trail that elk would actively avoid depending on the type of recreational activity. This avoidance is a form of habitat loss and compression.
Besides the quantitative results, the two-dimensional mapping showed that there were only a handful of undisturbed habitat islands, each significantly separated from the others by areas of human disturbance. This leads to habitat fragmentation and interferes with the natural movement and migration of elk.
“Why?” asked the Backcountry Journal.
“More leisure,” says Andree. “Increase in mountain biking, hiking and dog walking in the spring, summer and fall and increase in skiing, wheel biking and snowshoeing in the winter. Coupled with shrinking habitat, this could mean the end of the herd.
“It’s not like these elk go up and across another hill to another unit. They just don’t exist anymore. They are dead. —former Colorado Parks and Wildlife Biologist Bill Andree
Locally, Routt County has seen the General Management Unit-14 resident elk herd decline by approximately 30% over the past 15 years. More worryingly, the number of elk calves per cow is declining by the same amount, calling into question the herd’s ability to remain viable. The decline cannot be blamed on wolves.
It’s not just a matter of impulses. Co-investigator TJ Thrasher added: “Although the study focused on elk, these disturbance strips may be a surrogate for many shy species that share the same habitat, such as dusky and ruffed grouse, mule deer, pronghorn, goshawks and many other raptors. . In this regard, we use elk as a proxy species for observation and protection of a wide range of species and habitats.
This is perhaps the price of progress. As tourism-focused marketing campaigns attract more and more visitors to fill our ever-growing number of trails, wildlife simply becomes collateral damage. According to the Steamboat Chamber of Commerce, we currently have over 500 miles of single lane bike paths and we are planning more. But is it worth the cost? The results of the recent Routt County Master Plan Survey indicate that Routt County residents think otherwise.
“Perhaps this is the price of progress. As tourism-focused marketing campaigns attract more and more visitors to fill our ever-growing number of trails, wildlife simply becomes collateral damage. We currently have over 500 miles of single lane bike paths according to the Steamboat Chamber of Commerce and plans to do more.” —Larry Desjardin
“The county must balance recreational use and conservation of public lands,” was the top choice of 925 respondents to the question. What was the statement of values that finished in last place? “Recreation is more important than conservation.”
When we talk about the balance between recreation and conservation, the question becomes: is the point of balance? Another way to ask this is, “When is enough?”
Indeed, how many trails do we need to build through elk calving grounds before we say, enough is enough? How many roadless areas need to be shoveled and scraped before we say enough is enough? How far should we turn our wilderness areas into amusement parks for visitors before we say enough is enough?
It will not serve the Yampa Valley well to fill our wild lands to their maximum human carrying capacity. As a journalist and mountain diary Founder Todd Wilkinson observed, speaking of emerging science related to the impacts of recreation on wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and other parts of the Rockies, “(that’s) why wildlife is disappearing. What takes courage, conviction and a forward-thinking vision is consciously choosing not to lead the way out of respect for animals that have little land to inhabit and far fewer options to survive than we do. to play.
Routt County can choose our future. We can do comprehensive landscape-scale recreation planning to protect our wilderness and roadless areas for future generations, and set a model for all of the western Rockies. Or we may witness the continued loss of wildlife and wild places in Routt County.
The people of Routt County ask us to choose wisely.
Below are graphs that accompany the analysis of the impacts of recreational activities on wildlife prepared by Larry Desjardin, TJ Thrasher and Allison Gallensky. Brown/tan areas show areas of elk movement near trails based on a number of different recreational uses and what has been documented in wildlife studies. The top graph shows the disturbance analysis in known elk calving areas, and the one below shows elk disturbance on elk summer range on public lands. The town of Steamboat Springs and the Steamboat Ski Area are located roughly in the middle of the two graphs.