Colorados outdoor recreation boom collides with elk herd, report says

Along with heading to the mountains to see the gold aspen leaves, a must-do for a lot of Coloradans in the fall is to hear bull elk bugle. The male elk’s high-pitched bellow signals the start of the rut — mating season — and is a beckoning call for wildlife-watchers and a harbinger for hunters of the chase to come.

But a new analysis by a sportsmen’s group says the Rocky Mountain icon is increasingly under pressure from human encroachment into the areas it uses to migrate, seek food and shelter, and give birth. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report looks at the impact of the state’s booming outdoor recreation and the more than 40,000 miles of mapped trails used by hikers, mountain bikers, ATV riders and others.

Nearly 40% of the most important elk habitat statewide identified in the report overlaps with trails, resulting in the animals potentially avoiding more than 8 million out of nearly 22 million acres. The analysis warns that threats to those areas can undermine the health of the animal’s population, the world’s largest elk herd.

“I think the most important message is that there are impacts to all of our recreational pursuits,” said Liz Rose, the Colorado field representative for TRCP.

The pressures on elk are enough of a concern that Colorado Parks and Wildlife is studying why the number of elk calves that are born and survive to adulthood is declining in parts of the state.

A 2020 executive order by Gov. Jared Polis established the Colorado Outdoor Regional Partnerships Initiative to promote local and statewide work on balancing recreation with conservation. So far, coalitions have received a total of about $1.3 million from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Great Outdoors Colorado.

Recreation tied to wildlife — hunting, fishing, tourism — is big business in Colorado. It generates $5 billion a year and supports 40,000 jobs. The estimated 309,000 elk that roam Colorado make the state a hunting and wildlife-watching destination.

The TRCP report also acknowledges outdoor recreation’s huge economic contribution. Outdoor recreation contributed $9.6 billion to Colorado’s economy in 2020 and supported 120,063 jobs across the state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The report recommends ways to balance wildlife conservation with the demand for outdoor recreation opportunities, which is increasingly important for local economies.

“There are options agencies can take in planning to make sure that we’re not jeopardizing the long-term stability of the game herds in Colorado, that we’re able to sustain the outdoor recreation industry, economy and game herds,” Rose said.

TRCP’s recommendations include avoiding the highest-priority elk habitats when planning trails wherever possible; limiting road and trail use during the times of year when elk or other big game animals are present if not building in the area isn’t possible; and limiting the density of roads and trails where seasonal closures aren’t practical.

Colorado has been a leader in focusing on the effects of oil and gas development on wildlife habitat, said Madeleine West, director of TRCP’s Center for Public Lands.

“There’s a lot of science and public awareness around that issue. What we’re trying to present is that there is science around the impacts from recreational trails, too,” West said.

An immediate impact that TRCP hopes its report makes is on the Bureau of Land Management, which manages 8.3 million acres of federal public lands in Colorado and 27 million acres of federal minerals under federal, state and private lands. The BLM is considering changes to its land-use plans in Colorado to include conservation of big game migration corridors and habitat in decisions on oil and gas development.

“The BLM left the door open for comments on whether other uses should be considered. We said recreation is one of the other activities on the landscape that should be analyzed if the purpose is really to conserve and maintain big game habitat,” West said.

Far from the beaten paths

Several wildlife species face growing obstacles as Colorado’s human population grows. They face disturbances and loss of habitat from new homes and roads, energy development, drought and climate change. A 2021 report by the National Wildlife Federation and Conservation Science Partners said wildlife that are hunted lost on average 6.5 million acres of vital habitat over the past two decades.

When it comes to recreation, much of the research has centered on elk, said Jon Holst, the wildlife and energy senior adviser at TRCP.

“Elk seem particularly like a canary in a coal mine for trail-based disturbance. They seem particularly sensitive to trail use,” said Holst, a wildlife biologist formerly with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Research published in 2018 and led by the U.S. Forest Service looked at how far away elk stayed from recreation trails. The distance varied based on the type of recreation: 1,795-2,172 feet from hikers and mountain bike riders; about 2,884 feet from ATVs.

Problems occur when the areas elk avoid are their birthing grounds, migration corridors and land with shelter and food in winter and summer range in the mountains.

Recreational trail use in Colorado grew by 44% between 2014 and 2019, a 2019 report by Colorado Parks and Wildlife found. The TRCP analysis was based on the high-priority habitat identified by state wildlife experts and trails listed on the Colorado Trail Explorer provided by the state.

Holst said the analysis doesn’t show that some trails are closed at certain times of the year to limit the disturbance on wildlife.

“The flip side is there are a lot of unmapped, user-created trails,” Holst said. “What’s in our analysis is really an underestimate of how many trails are out there.”

Ongoing conservation

Wildlife and land-management agencies have been talking for a while about what increasing outdoor recreation means for wildlife, said Doug Vilsack, director of the Colorado office of the Bureau of Land Management.

“We saw a 30% increase in recreation in 2020” on BLM lands, said Vilsack, formerly with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The last couple of years, we’ve seen a 23 to 25% increase year in, year out.”

An estimated 9.6 million people visited BLM-managed land in Colorado in 2019, spokesman Steven Hall said in an email. Visitation shot up to 12.5 million in 2020.

Outdoor recreation rates skyrocketed nationwide after COVID-19 restrictions shut down other forms of entertainment. The Outdoor Industry Association said 53% of Americans 6 and older recreated outdoors at least once in 2020, the highest rate on record.

The BLM tracks activity at designated campgrounds and recreation sites, but Vilsack said the staff knows people are also out on unofficial sites. And the BLM acknowledges its maps don’t show the trails people have created on their own.

The BLM is updating its Colorado land-use plans as part of a settlement of a lawsuit by the state over protections for wildlife and natural resources. Vilsack said the BLM must wrap up the work by mid-2023 and it’s unclear if the amendment to the plans will explore recreation’s impacts.

“There’s a clear focus on oil and gas and a timeline, but broadly focusing on these recreational impacts is a priority for BLM in this state,” Vilsack said.

Colorado’s elk herd population of approximately 309,000 has been stable the past few years, but total numbers don’t tell the whole story, said Andy Holland, CPW big game manager. There have been about 20 years of declines in cow-calf ratios: the number of calves per 100 female elk.

“It tells us how many calves were born and how many survived until January,” Holland said.

The past 18 years, CPW has dramatically cut the number of hunting licenses for cow elk to stabilize the population. The agency is also researching why the cow-calf ratios are low in certain parts of the state. Holland said the reasons likely differ from area to area: drought, energy development, predators and outdoor recreation.

“Recreation is a concern of ours,” Holland said. “The number of people out enjoying the outdoors of Colorado has been increasing and so has our concern.”

Death by a thousand cuts

Aaron Kindle, the Colorado-based director of sporting advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation, said the TRCP report does a good job of quantifying the effects of recreation trails on elk.

“We’ve had this everybody-get-outside mentality, which is great. We want people outside,” Kindle said.

But the appropriate type of management and funding are needed to handle the surge in outdoor recreation, Kindle said.

“It’s really death by a thousand cuts. You have all these small rural towns growing into places like (wildlife) winter range,” Kindle said.

During the pandemic, people who could work remotely started moving to places like Colorado because they could live anywhere and they liked the lifestyle, Kindle added. “Things are coming to a head.”

In Routt County, mountain bike riders have been waiting for for action on a proposal for more trails. The trails, to be financed with revenue from a local, voter-approved lodging tax, have been in the works for several years, said Craig Frithsen, president of Routt County Riders, which advocates for mountain bike riders in northwest Routt County.

The so-called Mad Rabbit project called for roughly 50 miles of new trails in the Routt National Forest that would connect the Mad Creek area to Rabbit Ears Pass. Some planned trails have been dropped because of concerns about elk habitat. The Forest Service is preparing an environmental review of the project and is getting input from state wildlife officials.

“There really hasn’t been a lot of trail development on public land with mountain bikes in mind relative to the explosive popularity of them,” Frithsen said.

Existing trails are closed for periods to allow elk to use certain areas, Frithsen said. Some of the proposed trails are opposed by Keep Routt Wild, which includes hunters and wildlife advocates. Larry Desjardin, a hunter and mountain biker, is the group’s president. He said the Forest Service should write an environmental impact statement for the trail proposal because some of the land is in roadless areas.

An environmental impact statement would be more comprehensive and likely take longer than the review planned by the agency. The public will have a chance to comment when the draft review is released.

Frithsen said he trusts the agenices to come up with th best plan. He said the cycling group has nothing against hunting and is concerned about wildlife, but believes mountain bikers are being singled out.

“We feel hunting is totally legitimate recreation, but we do have issues with hunting groups that try to limit or prevent access to public lands by other user groups,” Frithsen said.

But Holst with TRCP said fewer elk wouldn’t be a loss just for hunters. “If we didn’t have this iconic, world-renowned resource, we’ve lost something, something that makes Colorado Colorado.”

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