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Randall Williams

September 28, 2022

New Study Shows 40% of Colorado’s Most Important Elk Habitat Is Affected by Recreational Trail Use

Geospatial analysis shows extent of overlap and highlights opportunities for responsible recreation management

Today, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership revealed a new analysis showing that 40 percent of the most important Colorado elk habitat is affected by trail use and proposed sensible management options to facilitate sustainable recreation and enduring conservation of Colorado’s big game animals.

“This analysis is meant to facilitate conversation and provide useful information so that land managers and outdoor recreationists can more effectively conserve iconic big game species like elk, while also enjoying high-quality recreation opportunities,” said Liz Rose, the Colorado field representative for TRCP. “Outdoor recreation is a cornerstone of Colorado’s economy and central to the identity of our state, and this is one of the reasons why science-based management of our natural resources—wildlife among them—is so critical.”

The analysis unveiled today is informed by a growing body of research showing the degree to which different types of recreational trail use displace elk from otherwise suitable habitat. This information, utilized in conjunction with data representing motorized and non-motorized trails from the COTREX database, suggests that more than 8 million acres of Colorado’s most important elk habitats could be considered avoidance areas for elk, given their well-documented flight response to recreationists.

Displaced elk could face population declines, and this means fewer opportunities for hunters and wildlife watchers alike. You can view a summary of this analysis and maps depicting its findings here and read why this data is important to sportsmen and sportswomen here.

To ensure that important habitats remain connected and usable for elk and other big game animals, the TRCP has proposed the following:
• Avoid the highest-priority elk habitats when planning recreation infrastructure, wherever possible.
• Limit motorized and non-motorized road and trail use during certain times of year when elk or other big game animals are present, if avoiding important habitat is not possible.
• Limit the density of motorized and non-motorized roads and trails in important habitats where these time-of-use restrictions aren’t practical.

The TRCP’s analysis comes one year after the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Department of Transportation published recommendations for conserving important big game habitats and populations that highlighted the need to improve recreation planning and coordination across jurisdictions. The departments also recommended directing recreational pressure away from the most important big game habitats and maintaining low route densities in high-priority habitats.

Currently, the Colorado Bureau of Land Management is deciding whether to include recreation among those factors considered in the scope of its Big Game Resource Management Plan Amendment, which will guide land-use planning efforts to conserve big game animals like elk on public lands across the state. Sportsmen and sportswomen have been encouraging the BLM to utilize the latest science and consider all relevant factors in this process, including impacts on big game from trail-based recreation. The TRCP recently launched an online advocacy tool that allows Coloradans to message the BLM in support of these priorities

“The challenges that our wildlife face in the future will not necessarily be the same as those they faced 50 or 100 years ago, and the science is clear that trail-based recreation is having an impact in Colorado and across the western United States as record numbers of Americans are enjoying the outdoors,” said Madeleine West, director of TRCP’s Center for Public Lands. “If we can raise awareness about the issue and bring together stakeholders to work toward collaborative solutions, there’s no reason we can’t enjoy the best of both worlds in terms of doing what’s best for wildlife and providing abundant outdoor opportunities, all while growing our outdoor recreation economy.

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New Study Shows 40% of Colorado’s Most Important Elk Habitat Is Affected by Recreational Trail Use

Geospatial analysis shows extent of overlap and highlights opportunities for responsible recreation management

Today, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership revealed a new analysis showing that 40 percent of the most important Colorado elk habitat is affected by trail use and proposed sensible management options to facilitate sustainable recreation and enduring conservation of Colorado’s big game animals.

“This analysis is meant to facilitate conversation and provide useful information so that land managers and outdoor recreationists can more effectively conserve iconic big game species like elk, while also enjoying high-quality recreation opportunities,” said Liz Rose, the Colorado field representative for TRCP. “Outdoor recreation is a cornerstone of Colorado’s economy and central to the identity of our state, and this is one of the reasons why science-based management of our natural resources—wildlife among them—is so critical.”

The analysis unveiled today is informed by a growing body of research showing the degree to which different types of recreational trail use displace elk from otherwise suitable habitat. This information, utilized in conjunction with data representing motorized and non-motorized trails from the COTREX database, suggests that more than 8 million acres of Colorado’s most important elk habitats could be considered avoidance areas for elk, given their well-documented flight response to recreationists.

Displaced elk could face population declines, and this means fewer opportunities for hunters and wildlife watchers alike. You can view a summary of this analysis and maps depicting its findings here and read why this data is important to sportsmen and sportswomen here.

To ensure that important habitats remain connected and usable for elk and other big game animals, the TRCP has proposed the following:
• Avoid the highest-priority elk habitats when planning recreation infrastructure, wherever possible.
• Limit motorized and non-motorized road and trail use during certain times of year when elk or other big game animals are present, if avoiding important habitat is not possible.
• Limit the density of motorized and non-motorized roads and trails in important habitats where these time-of-use restrictions aren’t practical.

The TRCP’s analysis comes one year after the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Department of Transportation published recommendations for conserving important big game habitats and populations that highlighted the need to improve recreation planning and coordination across jurisdictions. The departments also recommended directing recreational pressure away from the most important big game habitats and maintaining low route densities in high-priority habitats.

Currently, the Colorado Bureau of Land Management is deciding whether to include recreation among those factors considered in the scope of its Big Game Resource Management Plan Amendment, which will guide land-use planning efforts to conserve big game animals like elk on public lands across the state. Sportsmen and sportswomen have been encouraging the BLM to utilize the latest science and consider all relevant factors in this process, including impacts on big game from trail-based recreation. The TRCP recently launched an online advocacy tool that allows Coloradans to message the BLM in support of these priorities

“The challenges that our wildlife face in the future will not necessarily be the same as those they faced 50 or 100 years ago, and the science is clear that trail-based recreation is having an impact in Colorado and across the western United States as record numbers of Americans are enjoying the outdoors,” said Madeleine West, director of TRCP’s Center for Public Lands. “If we can raise awareness about the issue and bring together stakeholders to work toward collaborative solutions, there’s no reason we can’t enjoy the best of both worlds in terms of doing what’s best for wildlife and providing abundant outdoor opportunities, all while growing our outdoor recreation economy.

Liz Rose

September 27, 2022

40% of Most Important Colorado Elk Habitat Is Affected by Trail Use

New analysis shows the extent to which recreational trails overlap with important elk habitat in Colorado

Colorado’s resident population and visitor numbers continue to rise, and our year-round presence on recreational trails is impacting elk and other wildlife like never before. When elk are stressed by things like human disturbance, insufficient nutrition, and smaller habitat areas, local populations can struggle and decline.

In Colorado, certain big game herds–including some elk herds—are shrinking, which translates to fewer opportunities for hunters. For the 2022 hunting season, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will issue 1,400 fewer pronghorn licenses, 500 fewer deer licenses, and 800 fewer limited elk tags compared to the 2021 season. The good news is that activities within elk and other big game habitat can be planned and managed to limit impacts when and where it’s needed.

A new analysis by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership shows that around 40 percent of the most important elk habitat in Colorado is already impacted by non-motorized and motorized trail users. In this analysis we look at the overlap between existing recreational trails and high-priority elk habitat.

We undertook this analysis because trail locations and trail use are factors that are known to change elk behavior and their distribution across the landscape, and as passionate elk hunters and active trail users we wanted to better understand our collective trail-based impacts on Colorado’s elk. This statewide analysis provides land managers and partners with an opportunity to visualize where there is already significant overlap between important elk habitats and mapped trail systems, consider where updated management may help prevent changes in elk distribution and declines in local populations, and decide where it may be wise to avoid or limit future trails.

Figure 1: Map of combined elk winter concentration areas, severe winter range, migration corridors, production areas, and summer concentration areas (light purple area), and the nonmotorized and motorized recreational trail avoidance areas that overlap those habitats (dark purple area).

 

In Colorado, hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching generate $5 billion in economic activity each year, support 40,000 jobs across the state, and enhance our quality of life, but it’s not just hunters who love wildlife. Outdoor recreationists of all kinds value protecting important wildlife habitats and having opportunities to view wildlife, so the need to maintain, conserve, and protect big game habitats and herds is important to the public at-large. When Colorado residents were surveyed in 2014 and 2019, “opportunities to view wildlife” consistently ranked second in the public’s recreation priorities, behind the desire to have local walking trails/paths. Over that time period, the number of days spent using recreational trails had grown 44 percent, while days spent viewing wildlife had increased by 105 percent.

If we want to have it all—strong, diversified recreation economies; enjoyable, sustainable trail systems; and healthy wildlife populations—public land managers will need to minimize impacts to elk and other big game animals by planning trails to avoid high-priority habitat, restricting activity during the times of year when elk are present, and reducing or limiting the trail density within important elk habitats, if time-of-use restrictions aren’t practical.

A Conservation Success Story Under Threat

Colorado has the largest elk herd in the world, and people love seeing, learning about, photographing, and harvesting them. State agencies, federal land managers, and partners worked hard to bring this population up from its low of only 40,000 elk in Colorado in the early 1900s, to around 300,000 today, but some local populations of elk in Colorado are declining once again.

Decades of wildlife research has documented the impacts of road and trail systems and associated human activities on elk behavior and habitat use. Throughout the year, elk need resting areas, food, water, and the ability to move freely between seasonal habitats to access high-quality forage and other essential resources. Within their overall range, elk migrate to different kinds of habitat throughout the year. Elk generally spend winters at lower elevations, where there’s less snow, then move higher into the mountains in the spring and summer in search of cooler temperatures.

Elk also pass down the knowledge of migration patterns to their offspring. In this way, many seasonal habitats, migration routes, and stopover areas are multigenerational—some are even thousands of years old. When new trails bisect well-established migration routes, or if trails in elk seasonal habitat become busy all year round, it can inhibit elk use of these habitats and negatively affect the herds’ ability to successfully raise offspring, which can over time lead to a declining local population.

Elk can survive in some of our state’s harshest environments, but the research shows that additional disturbance from humans during their toughest times of the year can prove fatal. In a study of the elk herd in Vail, Colorado, researchers found that if cow elk had to move in response to hikers an average of seven times during calving, about 30 percent of their calves died. Resulting data models suggest that if mother elk were disturbed 10 times during calving, all of their calves would die. When researchers stopped sending hikers through calving areas, the calf survival rate recovered. This suggests that limiting disturbance in production areas and summer concentration areas during calving season could help increase elk calf survival rates.

Our Analysis

We used a 2018 study on elk response to trail-based recreation that documented elk avoidance of areas around trails and at what distances, depending on the type of use.

Elk stayed about 547 meters away from hikers; 662 meters away from mountain bike riders; and 879 meters away from ATV riders. Using these avoidance distances, we estimated how much of the highest priority elk habitat on either side of existing trails may be rendered unusable for elk as a consequence of high-frequency trail use. While elk overall range covers a majority of the state, the habitats we used in this analysis cover about one-third of the state and include winter concentration areas, severe winter range, migration corridors, production areas, and summer concentration areas. Because these habitats are particularly important to the elk life cycle and overall population stability, we refer to them in this analysis as high- or highest-priority habitats.

The lower-range estimates for overlap between trail avoidance areas and elk habitats use the hiker avoidance distance along non-motorized trails (547m) and the ATV avoidance distance (879m) along motorized trails.

The higher-range estimates for overlap between trail avoidance areas and elk habitats use the mountain biker avoidance distance (662m) along non-motorized trails and the ATV-avoidance distance (879m) along motorized trails.

The Path Forward

As is, nearly 40 percent of the highest-priority elk habitat in Colorado is at risk of being effectively abandoned by elk due to recreational trails and trail use. It’s imperative that Colorado residents, tourists, and land managers recognize that all land uses can negatively impact the elk and wildlife habitats that are so highly valued by us all. This is why the TRCP is calling for hunters, outdoor recreationists, and local, state, and federal agencies to commit to smart recreation planning and maintaining and conserving functional, intact elk habitats—while we still have them.

Land managers at all levels must be intentional when planning new recreational trails, avoiding the highest-priority habitats altogether or minimizing anticipated impacts by planning for enforceable seasonal closures and lower route density. The recommended management actions described in Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 2021 Guide to Planning Trails with Wildlife in Mind are meant to avoid and minimize impacts to big game from new trails (Appendix A, pp 44-45) and are consistent with CPW’s recently updated and well-vetted recommendations for its defined high-priority habitats. As other states across the country experience increases in recreation development, this information may serve as a helpful resource in efforts to plan more wisely.

These recommendations specify a density limit of one linear mile per square mile route for motorized and non-motorized roads and trails in migration corridors and other high-priority big game habitats. This helps ensure that important big game habitats are easy for animals to pass through—or “permeable”—and that they remain connected and usable. Conserving different parts of important elk habitat through strategic, science-based management, as well as public education, can increase population stability and resiliency by enabling elk to find the kind of forage, water, and cover they need throughout their lifecycle.

Local, state, and federal agencies are increasingly utilizing the latest data and science on big game animals to guide their recreation development and management decisions, and it’s an important time to make sure more stakeholders are aware of opportunities for better planning and management.

The Colorado Bureau of Land Management intends to incorporate the latest science into Resource Management Plans across the state to maintain, conserve, and protect big game habitat. We encourage the BLM to utilize this science to support responsible recreation planning and management so that Coloradoans can have it all: strong recreation economies, world-class big game populations, and exceptional outdoor recreation opportunities.

Take action using our simple advocacy tool to send this message to the BLM: Colorado BLM can be a leader in responsible recreation management and conservation of big game habitats through the Big Game Corridors RMPA.

TAKE ACTION HERE

 

Photo by Jasper Nance via Flickr

Rob Thornberry

September 22, 2022

Unlocking the Winter Range’s Full Potential

Idaho stakeholders come together to take down dated fences 

Impregnable for everything larger than a cottontail, the woven wire fence has stood for decades along Grassy Ridge Road on the Sand Creek winter range in eastern Idaho.

Windblown sand buries the bottom strand in spots, making the structure even more rigid than it was when first installed. Three feet up, parallel strands of barbed wire stretch above a wire netting barrier, making it impossible for a grown man to straddle. The combined effect is perfect for keeping all manner of livestock, from sheep to cattle, off the adjacent county road and on the private property or public land grazing allotments where they belong.

But it also makes life more difficult for the area’s wildlife. Pronghorn antelope no longer migrate to this corner of the desert. Elk still move in and out, as do mule deer, which flock to the area around the Grassy Ridge Road by the thousands. But even for these larger ungulates, the fence has its consequences. The carcass of a deer, leg tangled in wire from a poorly calculated jump, is a common sight for travelers along the road.

“It is pretty tough for animals to cross this,” said Gerren Steel, Idaho Department of Fish and Game volunteer coordinator.

The Grassy Ridge Road fence, like miles and miles of similar structures across the West, was built at a time when its effects on wildlife movement were not well understood, let alone considered. Today, however, priorities have shifted, and the fence is getting a facelift. It is being retrofitted with a wildlife-friendly design by a group of unlikely allies working to save the Sand Creek winter range from a variety of threats.

Roughly 8,500 deer, elk, moose, and pronghorns spend the winter on the Sand Creek desert, which sits between the towns of St. Anthony and Dubois in eastern Idaho’s Fremont and Clark counties. The winter range is a 500,000-acre patchwork of Bureau of Land Management public lands, state endowment lands managed by the Idaho Department of Lands, deeded Idaho Fish and Game Lands, and private property.

Sand Creek is one of the last best bastions of sagebrush steppe in eastern Idaho, lush with sagebrush, bitterbrush, chokecherry, junipers, and rabbitbrush. Its quality, however, is being diminished slowly and surely. On the eastern boundary, human development encroaches in the form of platted subdivisions. To the west, the 2018 Grassy Ridge wildfire burnt a quarter of the winter range, robbing animals of forage and cover. And across the desert, motorized recreationists carelessly punch illegal routes across the sage, further fragmenting the habitat that is the foundation of this famed winter range.

There is hope, however, for this landscape and the big game herds that depend on it. State and federal agencies—including the BLM, IDFG, IDL, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—along with conservationists, sportsmen and sportswomen, and private landowners are working together to sustainably manage this important habitat. Over the past three years, the Sand Creek collaborative has worked collectively to design and build firebreaks to protect the remaining healthy winter range from the threat of outsized wildfires brought on by climate change. The group has also designed and implemented vegetation treatments to promote livestock forage and diversify the age structure of sagebrush stands. The goals of their collaboration are preventing large wildfires, improving wildlife habitat, and providing for a working landscape.

 

Today, the group’s conservation work comes in the form of fixing a fence in the heart of the winter range.

Steel, from Fish and Game, and habitat biologist Tim Swearingen leapfrog each other along the fence line, separating the barbed wire and net wire fence from the posts that hold it tight. It is slow work as they cut the fencing away from the posts and lay it on the ground. Afterwards, a USFWS partner biologist utilizes a skid steer equipped with a mounted fence roller to collect the downed fence.

The posts will remain where they are, and a new wildlife-friendly fence will replace the old barbed and woven wire. A new bottom wire—smooth, not barbed—will be 16 inches off the ground. The wider gap between the fence bottom and the ground will keep livestock where they should be, while providing the opportunity for pronghorns, mule deer fawns, and elk calves to slide underneath, hopefully unharmed. On the other end, the top wire of the fence will be 42 inches off the ground, again still tall enough to contain livestock while making it easier for deer and elk to jump the barrier.

Swearingen hopes to take down and replace four miles of fence this fall. IDFG will provide the labor, using a cadre of volunteers. USFWS will contribute fence removal expertise and contracting oversight, and the NRCS is footing the bill for the materials. There is no cost to private landowners and public land grazers, but the benefits to all will be obvious.

Hundreds of miles of fence still remain, but Swearingen is happy with the day’s progress.

“We are making the range more wildlife-friendly, slowly and surely,” he said.

Get to Know a Key Everglades Restoration Project that Will Improve Wetlands and Estuaries

What is the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir and why is it important to hunters and anglers?

The iconic Everglades ecosystem contains some of America’s largest estuaries, which provide essential habitat to important sportfish and game species. In celebration of National Estuaries Week, we wanted to highlight a key project that will help restore and conserve America’s Everglades: the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir.

The EAA Reservoir has two primary features—a treatment wetland that will clean the water from Lake Okeechobee and a reservoir that will store excess water from the lake. The wetland will be built by the state-run South Florida Water Management District, and the reservoir will be built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This project is necessary to restore the natural north-to-south water flows that once sustained the ecosystem. Before the watershed was reshaped by development in the last century, water flows created a “river of grass” throughout south Florida that extended to both the east and west coasts. Most of the historic Everglades now lays dry, as farmland and housing developments have taken the place of functional wetlands.

These days, water is transported from Lake Okeechobee to the coasts and southern Everglades through a complex system of pumps, levees, and canals. This water is rich in phosphorus from fertilizer and manure runoff, which leads to massive algae blooms.

The EAA reservoir will help filter and send cleaner freshwater south to drain into the Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico. In these areas, freshwater and seawater mix to create brackish water estuaries, which are breeding grounds and nurseries for many of the fish, crustaceans, and shellfish that anglers love to pursue. Cleaner water and healthier sea grasses will benefit populations of spotted seatrout, redfish, tarpon, largemouth bass, and peacock bass when the reservoir is complete.

Historically, the Everglades has also provided essential habitat for waterfowl, deer, turkeys and other game species. But poorer habitat conditions and recent harmful algae blooms have killed off much of the food that game and waterfowl rely on. The EAA reservoir will be a boon for these species as new wetlands become loaded with aquatic vegetation that filters out nutrients before the water flows south.

The TRCP is pushing Congress to allocate the funding necessary to restore and conserve America’s Everglades. Take action using our simple advocacy tool to tell your lawmakers you support full funding for Everglades restoration.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA

In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.

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