Some Steamboat-area trails closed as crews improve elk habitat
Call it Extreme Home Makeover: Routt County Elk Edition.
Large machines that resemble giant lawnmowers will spend the coming weeks cutting down old vegetation in two parts of the National Forest around Steamboat Springs to make better homes for the elk.
When it’s over, the elk and deer will have a better, more nutritious food supply and winter range.
The work will also reduce the risk of wildfires in the area.
But, while the work is underway, hikers and cyclists will need to stay off some Forest Service trails.
The Mad Creek Road, Hot Springs Trail and Lower Bear Trailhead will all be closed during the 250-acre habitat improvement project.
Hikers and cyclists will still be able to reach the picturesque Mad Barn by taking the trail on the west side of the creek, which starts at the large parking lot and trailhead off Routt County Road 129.
But the closure of the Mad Creek Road means hikers will have to stop just past the wooden bridge that crosses the creek and turn around.
The closures might last until Sept. 1, but Forest Service Spokesman Aaron Voos said the project could be done sooner.
Trail users who might be tempted to disobey the trail closures could face more than just fines.
The machinery that is mowing down the gamble oak and dead aspen trees is capable of sending large pieces of debris as far as 200 feet away.
Think of the pain you get when your lawnmower sends a twig into your shin, and amplify it.
The work comes at a time when the elk that spend their winters near the Yampa Valley are finding it more difficult to survive.
The growth of the human population in the Yampa Valley has led to a sort of eviction of some of the elk herds that used to winter on the valley floor, Forest Service Wildlife Biologist Missy Dressen said.
So, elk herds are now spending their time in less ideal areas that would historically have been transitional winter range.
“They now are at a place where the forage has decreased in its quality, and they’re going to start getting stressed in terms of surviving the winter,” she said.
Why is the Forest Service cutting down vegetation that elk currently eat? The short answer is the overgrown shrubs have lost their nutritional value, and elk risk staving to death if they continue eating it.
“The better food source are the young shoots and the things sprouting off shrubs,” she said. “They need new growth to have nutrition. Grinding these shrubs down will allow for that new growth, and the elk will get more nutritious food to survive the winter.”
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