Aircraft netting elk near Rabbit Ears Pass to study effects of recreation on herds

Wildlife officials used helicopters on Tuesday, Jan. 28, to net several elk near the base of Rabbit Ears Pass. The effort is part of a statewide project to study how recreation effects the health and vitality of elk herds. Helicopters will be in the area until at least Wednesday, Jan. 29.
Kevin Gilman/courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Wildlife officials are using helicopters this week to net and track several cow elk in Routt County. 

The work is part of a statewide research project, headed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife in collaboration with the University of Wyoming and U.S. Forest Service, to study how human recreation affects the health of elk herds.

Helicopters will be flying from Catamount Lake to Mad Creek until at least Wednesday, Jan. 29, according to Kyle Bond, a local district wildlife manager with Parks and Wildlife. They will be looking for resident elk that stay within Routt County, unlike other herds that migrate throughout the region.

Researchers participating in the project have the interesting job of shooting nets from the aircraft to capture the animals, which can weigh up to 500 pounds. To get a good shot, pilots have to fly low to the ground, often hovering just above trees and shrubs.

“It can be tricky,” Bond said. 

Once netted, researchers lower to the ground and place canvas collars on the elk, which have GPS trackers on them to trace their movements. They collect blood samples to get data on pregnancy rates and evaluate the animals’ weight, age and general health. Then, they let the elk go. 

Researchers hope to collect data on about 30 female elk in the area, Bond said.

Elsewhere in the state, in Vail and Aspen, researchers have documented major losses of elk populations in areas where recreation has become increasingly popular.

The conflict has pitted interests of a growing outdoor industry — which generates $28 billion in consumer spending annually in Colorado alone, according to the Office of Economic Development and International Trade — against concerns over the health of habitats, which also carry economic impact. 

A 2018 study from Southwick Associates found that hunting and fishing generates $1.8 billion annually in Colorado, up from $845 million in 2004. 

Dr. Michael Wisdom, a wildlife biologist in Oregon, has gained national notoriety for his studies on the effects of recreation on wildlife. He said much of the money from hunting relies on the vitality of species like elk and deer. This is not to mention the invaluable role these animals play in maintaining the health of vegetation. 

His research focused on how elk respond to four types of recreation: all-terrain vehicles, biking, horseback riding and hiking. All four, he said, caused elk to flee and decreased the amount of time they spent eating. Motorized vehicles and bikes caused the most disturbances, he found, but all types of recreation caused a displacement of elk and loss of useable habitat. 

For the most popular areas, this displacement became permanent as herds fled to private property where recreation is less common. 

“This has caused a lot of economic problems due to elk on private lands,” Wisdom said. 

Hunters consequently have had a harder time finding game on public lands, he added. 

A wildlife official from the Vail area went so far as to say recreation could cause a “biological desert” if trail building and winter closure violations continue, according to a High Country News article from August. 

To mitigate the impact of recreation on herds, Forest Service officials have enacted several seasonal closures on Routt National Forest. Mandatory closures exist on the Spring Creek, Mad Creek, Red Dirt and Hot Springs trails, as well as the foothills south of Steamboat Resort to U.S. Highway 40. Voluntary closures also exist in several areas in Routt County, among them the Sarvis Creek and Silver Creek trails south of Steamboat.

The Forest Service recommends the public use alternative winter recreation areas. Those include Buffalo Pass, Rabbit Ears Pass, Gore Pass, Lynx Pass, Dunckley Pass and the Bear River Corridor at the entrance to the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.

Punishment for violating Forest Service mandatory closures could mean a fine of up to $500 or up to six months in prison, according to the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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