Wildlife officer sounds a note of caution on creating more trails

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

As city and county officials, user groups and the Aspen Skiing Co. gear up to plan the future of mountain biking in the area, Aspen’s district wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) said he is constantly fighting an uphill battle to get the community to recognize recreation’s impact on deer, elk and other creatures.

The debate strikes a particular chord in relation to the Buttermilk ski area, where mountain biking advocates envision at least one new single-track trail to link town with the growing network of routes at Sky Mountain Park, located between Aspen and Snowmass.

The problem with that, according to Kevin Wright, CPW’s Aspen district wildlife manager, is that Buttermilk is adjacent to Burnt Mountain, a fragile and significant Elk calving habitat area. The Government Trail, a popular mountain bike route that connects Buttermilk and Snowmass through the Burnt Mountain area, is closed each spring so elk can mate in peace. When bikers and hikers cut through the area during the closure, science has shown that reproductive success goes down, adding to the problem of the area’s declining big game population, Wright said.

The closure is being disrespected enough as is, Wright said, pointing to photographic evidence from wildlife cameras that show bikers and hikers hoping closure gates.

“It’s like catch me if you can,” Wright said, “and it really is discouraging.”

In general, Wright said, the increased promotion of recreation in the Roaring Fork Valley “puts a tremendous amount of pressure” on wildlife — a fact that is ignored all to often, he said.

“People don’t realize what these trails do when they go into a sensitive wildlife area,” he said. “We’re creating all these disturbances all the time, and it’s not having a healthy effect” on deer, elk and other species.

He also pointed to the scourge of “bandit trails,” or unauthorized routes that users create without permission. Once the trail is created and riders get used to it, they expect land managers to accept the trail as part of the official system, Wright said.

“They build a trail and ask for forgiveness later,” Wright said.

While the scope of the effort is still in development, a movement is brewing to create a mountain biking master plan that would guide development of the sport in the upper valley for the next two decades, according to Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association President Mike Pritchard.

The work, conducted in conjunction with local, state and federal land managers, would include an inventory of existing mountain biking resources, and identify how those trails could be improved upon or expanded. Pritchard said he’d like to see a focus on adding trails that can get beginners into the sport.

He said he’s had conversations with CPW officials where they have expressed resistance to any new trails.

“Their role is to advocate for big game,” Pritchard said. “They are pretty consistent in their desire to say they don’t want any more recreation. They will always be that half of the equation to advocate for animals that can’t speak.”

He also asked bikers to stay off the bandit trails.

Wright said that if there is to be more trail development, it’s better to cluster it in places like ski areas, where there is already year-round disturbance. He also called for more enforcement to keep people out of closed areas — especially if Buttermilk winds up seeing more mountain biker use. He said he’d be happy to come to the table as part of a larger discussion about mountain biking, but he hopes there would be a good-faith effort to minimize impacts.

“It could be beneficial for everyone to get to the table and talk,” Wright said. “ ... But it depends on whether or not people want to hear what the impact of recreation would be.”