Balancing recreation and conservation: Colorado Parks and Wildlife launches 2 studies in Routt County |

Balancing recreation and conservation: Colorado Parks and Wildlife launches 2 studies in Routt County

A bull elk stands in a pasture north of Steamboat Springs in 2016. (File photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Wildlife managers hope that research in Routt County will help them better understand Colorado’s elk herds.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife will launch two studies in the area this year. Both will gather more information about the Bears Ears elk herd, which encompasses the area from the Continental Divide west to the Little Snake River in central Moffat County and from U.S. Highway 40 north to the Wyoming border.

One study will focus on the impact human activity has on elk.

“It is our responsibility as the stewards of our wildlife to conserve these populations for current and future generations while recognizing the importance of connecting people to the outdoors through outdoor recreation, which includes the development of trails, which is the starting point for most people to get outside and see nature themselves,” said Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Kris Middledorf. “These studies will help us make those decisions down the road about how best to provide outdoor recreation while balancing it with conservation.”

Areas in Routt, Pitkin and Eagle counties with differing levels of human activity and different seasonal closure requirements were selected to better understand the cumulative impacts of all types of recreation on elk.

In a wildlife researcher’s ideal world, Parks and Wildlife mammal researcher Eric Bergman explained that wildlife biologists would be able to study an area without trails, build a trail then manipulate trail use. Because they can’t do that, researchers will compare areas that see a greater density of human activity to areas that see less recreation.

Seasonal closures vary throughout the study areas, so scientists will also gain a better understanding of how closures impact elk herds.

“We might very well find that with these seasonal closures, that maybe, these animals are leaving before the closures are even lifted,” Bergman said. “If elk are out of there two or three weeks before the closure’s lifted, that would be really nice to know for the counties for trail management. Likewise, we might also learn, ‘Man, if we could just extend that by one week, we could really reduce our impact.’”

With enough information, managers will be able to create best management practices to balance recreation and wildlife conservation.

In Routt County, the Mad Creek, Buffalo Pass, Walton Rim and Ferndale areas were selected for study.

Farther south, the Crown, a Bureau of Land Management recreation area near Carbondale and a chunk of Pitkin County and U.S. Forest Service land near Snowmass Village will be compared to two adjacent private ranches.

Though the research will take place in several areas where trails are proposed under the U.S. Forest Service’s Mad Rabbit project, the six-year study’s results will likely come out after officials make a decision on where or if trails will be built.

“After we get our results, and we interpret those results and have that information published, (it) will give us a better insight on how we plan trail and outdoor recreation in the future for projects that could be similar to the Mad Creek to Rabbit Ears trail proposal, or any other trail proposal,” Middledorf said.

GPS collars on the elk will help wildlife biologists understand how they move across the landscape. Researchers will also use a network of trail cameras to snap photos of elk and other wildlife to estimate elk populations.

Scientists are using the new research method to estimate wildlife populations using cameras placed in a grid-like pattern across an area, which will take photos at specific intervals.

The second study will help wildlife managers better understand the factors that impact elk calves’ survival in the first year of life.

Researchers will place GPS collars on female elk and place internal implants in pregnant cow elk that notify scientists when a calf is born. Then, researchers will locate the calf and place a GPS collar on it to track its survival. Researchers can then learn about what contributes to a calf’s death — be it the mother’s nutrition, weather, predators, hunting or a combination of these and other factors.

Parks and Wildlife measures calf survival in a herd using a metric called a calf-cow ratio. This is a measure of how many calves are in the herd per every 100 adult female elk.

“We use those calf-cows ratios to assess herd status and population,” said Nathaniel Rayl, a wildlife researcher for Parks and Wildlife. “Over the last couple of decades, there’s been increasing concern in our agency over declining ratios, especially in the southern part of the state.”

Calf-cow ratio map courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Though this ratio is declining, Colorado as a whole has higher calf-cow ratios than other states, Bergman said.

Researchers have been studying calf-cow ratios in the Trinchera herd between Alamosa and Trinidad and the Uncompahagre Plateau herd near Montrose.

Now, the agency is expanding the research into Northwest Colorado’s Bears Ears herd and Pitkin County’s Avalanche Creek herd. The Bears Ears herd has the highest calf-cow ratio in the state and will be used as a reference to help scientists understand the differences between herds with higher and lower calf survival.

Middledorf explained that though local herds have higher calf-cow ratios than other parts of the state, the decline that the rest of the state is seeing should still raise red flags. Many Northwest Colorado communities rely on the economic value of wildlife and natural resources through hunting, outdoor recreation and watchable wildlife, he said.

“(That decline) is an indicator to us that there is something happening on the landscape that we need to be thinking about right now,” he said. “We don’t have 10, 15, 20 years to not be thinking about it.”

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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