Larry Desjardin: City should retract Mad Rabbit Trail Project
January 9, 2019
The city of Steamboat Spring plans to fund a massive network of trails extending from Mad Creek to Rabbit Ears Pass known as Mad Rabbit. Though I'm an avid cyclist, hiker and outdoorsman, I have come to the conclusion that the creation of those trails presents a serious risk to wildlife habitat in Routt County, and specifically, elk habitat.
We only need to go to Eagle County to see how quickly trails in our forests can reduce usable elk habitat, lowering elk production and survival rates. A June article in the Vail Daily reports that the Eagle County elk population has dropped 50 percent since 2007.
"We are not seeing the animals migrate to another area or permanently move somewhere else," said Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager Craig Wescoatt. "They are just dead and gone."
The biggest issue identified by wildlife officials is disruption, enabled by trails bringing more and more recreationalists into previously pristine environments. CPW wildlife manager Bill Andree added, “How many miles of trails and development is enough? Sooner or later, you are going to have to say 'no more.'"
Their concerns mirror the scientific studies showing the linkage between trail use and elk survival rates. Indeed, a CSU study performed in the Vail area observed that the elk calf/cow ratio plummeted by nearly 40 percent as a result of human trail use in calving season.
A Montana study concluded, “For many years winter ranges were considered the most limiting component of ungulate environments. However … weight gains and nutritional contributions of high quality summer range may be of equal or greater importance in determining winter survival and reproduction success."
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Eagle County may represent our own future. There are credible reports from hunters that the observed elk population near recently built trails has declined. Mad Rabbit is poised to make things worse. A CPW analysis conservatively estimated that Mad Rabbit would disrupt over 14 square miles of undisturbed habitat within designated Colorado Roadless Areas that currently offer wildlife refuge from human disturbance.
The downsides of a Mad Rabbit decision are unequal. A cancelation of Mad Rabbit means hikers and mountain bikers, like myself, will need to choose other trails for recreation. Fortunately, we have an abundance.
But going forward with Mad Rabbit risks a permanent decline in elk habitat and population. As thoughtful custodians of our public lands and the environment, the city should retract the Mad Rabbit trail proposal.