One other Colorado Mountain City Copes With Impacts Of Rising Recreation Stress On Wildlife

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A recent study adds further evidence that we do. The study is a joint project by Rocky Mountain Wild and Keep Routt Wild that quantifies the impact of trail recreation on moose habitat in nearby areas of Routt National Forest and is highlighted in a Feb. 24 Steamboat Pilot article. 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.

TThe study was based on US Forest Service peer-reviewed surveys of moose behavior during recreational activities. Using radio-collared moose, the original researchers were able to quantify how moose avoided trails and recreation seekers in the presence of hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders, and ATVs.

Our new analysis consisted of superimposing the same “fault bands” on roads and trails over the 124,000 hectare analysis area east of Steamboat Springs, an area rich in recreation and home to numerous wildlife species. These noise bands indicate the distance from the trail that moose would actively avoid depending on the type of recreational activity. This avoidance is a form of habitat loss and densification.

In addition to the quantitative results, the two-dimensional mapping revealed that there were only a handful of undisturbed habitat islands, each clearly separated from one another by areas of human disturbance. This leads to habitat fragmentation and disrupts the natural movement and migration of moose.

Why is that important? The impact of human development and recovery on Colorado’s moose herds has been a topic of significant interest in recent years. New studies are underway and include moose tracking around Steamboat. The moose herds in the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys have seen their population decline by 50 percent since around 2000, largely due to increasing human recovery. “It’s not like these moose ran over another hill to another unit,” says Bill Andree, a former biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “They just don’t exist anymore. They are dead.”

“Why?” asked the Backcountry Journal.

“Increased recovery,” says Andree. “More mountain biking, hiking, and dog walking in the spring, summer, and fall, and more skiing, fat biking, and snowshoeing in the winter. Coupled with decreasing habitat, this could mean the end of the herd.”

“It’s not like those moose ran over another hill to another unit. They just don’t exist anymore. They’re dead.” —Bill Andree, former Colorado parks and wildlife biologist

In Routt County, the resident General Management Unit-14 moose herd has declined about 30 percent over the past 15 years. Of even more concern, the number of moose calves per cow is falling by the same amount, calling into question whether the herd can even remain viable. Wolves cannot be blamed for the decline.

It’s not just a moose problem. Co-researcher TJ Thrasher added, “While the study focused on moose, these fault bands may be surrogates for many shy species that share the same habitat, such as moose. In this regard, we use the elk as a proxy species for observation and protection of a variety of species and habitats.”

Perhaps that is the price of progress. As tourism-oriented marketing campaigns lure more and more visitors to fill our ever-growing number of hiking trails, wildlife simply becomes collateral damage. According to the Steamboat Chamber of Commerce, we currently have over 500 miles of single track bike lanes and plan to add more. But is it worth the cost? The results of the most recent Routt County Master Plan survey show that Routt County residents think differently.

“Perhaps that is the price of progress. As tourism-oriented marketing campaigns lure 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 lanes according to the Steamboat Chamber of Commerce and plan to add more.” – Larry Desjardin

“The county needs to balance recreational use and preservation of public lands,” was the top choice of 925 responses to the question. Which value statement came last? “Recreation is more important than nature conservation.”

When we talk about balancing recovery and conservation, the question becomes, “What is the balance point?” Another way of asking is, “When is enough enough?”

In fact, how many paths do we have to build through moose calving grounds before we say enough is enough? How many roadless areas have to be shoveled and scraped before we say enough is enough? How much should we turn our wild areas into visitor-oriented amusement parks before we say enough is enough?

It will do the Yampa Valley no good to fill our wilderness to its maximum human carrying capacity. As journalist and Mountain Journal founder Todd Wilkinson noted when speaking with emerging scientists about the impact of recovery on wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and other parts of the Rocky Mountains, “(that’s) why wildlife is disappearing. What takes courage, conviction, and forward-thinking vision is the conscious decision not to blaze a trail out of respect for animals that have limited homes and far fewer opportunities to survive than we have to play.”

Routt County gets to choose our future. We can undertake comprehensive landscape-level recovery planning to protect our roadless and wild lands for future generations and set a model for the entire Rocky Mountain West. Or we can witness the ongoing loss of wildlife and wild places in Routt County.

Routt County residents ask us to choose wisely.

Below are graphs that accompanied the wildlife recovery impact analysis prepared by Larry Desjardin, TJ Thrasher and Allison Gallensky. The areas in brown/tan indicate areas of moose displacement near trails based on a variety of recreational purposes and what has been documented in wildlife studies. The upper graph illustrates the analysis of disturbance in known elk calving grounds and the lower graph shows elk disturbance in elk’s summer range on public land. The town of Steamboat Springs and the Steamboat ski area are roughly in the middle of both charts.