If updated, Colorado Bureau of Land Management plans could prevent habitat loss and reduce tensions between recreational user groups
When it comes to our public lands, it is possible to have it all—healthy wildlife populations, accessible trail systems, and a vibrant outdoor recreation economy. But given the many uses and increasing pressures on our public lands, that won’t happen by accident.
As our recent analysis shows, about 40 percent of the most important elk habitat in Colorado is already impacted by motorized and non-motorized trail users. A clear framework for balanced land management offers our best chance of reducing conflicts between user groups while also minimizing impacts to our shared natural resources.
That’s why we’re calling on the Colorado Bureau of Land Management to set a clear, consistent direction and ensure informed management of the most important big game habitats on public lands. Here’s what you need to know.
Increased Pressure on Shrinking Habitat
In Colorado, we’re fortunate to have a variety of big game animals—such as elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn—and opportunities to recreate outdoors 365 days per year in some form or fashion. Wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation often overlap on public lands, and it’s clear that interest in, and usage of, public lands for recreation is increasing. From 2012 to 2017, trail-based recreation in Colorado increased by 44 percent, and visitation to Colorado state parks and BLM lands jumped by more than 20 percent every year for the past few years.
At the same time, in some parts of the state, guides, outfitters, hunters, and local business owners reliant on hunting-related income are frustrated, because the number of limited hunting licenses available for antlerless elk in Colorado is not even half of what it was 18 years ago, representing a loss of almost 70,000 cow elk tags. This is an attempt to stabilize the state’s elk herds, as elk cow-calf ratios have been declining for the last 20 years in much of the state, meaning our herds have lower success at producing and raising elk calves than they used to.
These declines are due to several factors, but chief among them is habitat loss.
As elk and other big game habitats are increasingly squeezed by residential, commercial, and industrial development, what habitat remains is often fragmented by roads, train lines, fences, and recreational trails. Studies investigating elk herds’ struggles to produce and raise offspring are ongoing in Colorado, and recreation-driven disturbance to elk is one of the major focuses for researchers.
A Need for Informed, Consistent Direction
Given the clear potential for adverse effects on big game herds by motorized and non-motorized recreation, the risk of increased conflict between stakeholder groups over competing management priorities is concerning. That’s why it is critical that an overarching strategy guides land-use management in a way that reflects the latest data and science and balances interests in order to facilitate consistent application of best planning and management practices and avoid further conflict and controversy.
However, despite the significant proportion of Colorado BLM public lands that overlap with high-priority big game habitat, and the abundance of mapped trails on those lands, there remains no clear, consistent direction for responsible recreation management on public lands managed by the agency.
An Important Opportunity
Right now, however, Colorado BLM has the opportunity to incorporate the latest science on big game behavior and habitat needs and provide consistent recreation management direction to its field offices across the state through its ongoing Big Game Resource Management Plan Amendment process.
The BLM can reduce impacts to big game animals—including elk, deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep—in a number of ways. This includes directing recreational development outside of important big game habitat, where possible, or limiting route densities within important habitats and employing seasonal use limitations when and where it’s needed.
Ensuring that Colorado maintains its world-class outdoor recreation opportunities and thriving wildlife populations is a top priority for state agencies and elected officials. Governor Jared Polis’s 2020 executive order creating the Colorado Outdoor Regional Partnerships Initiative set in motion a process for developing a statewide Conservation and Recreation Plan to balance the needs of wildlife and recreational public land users. It will be informed by regionally developed priorities for recreation and conservation, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife Habitat Conservation and Connectivity Plan, and, ideally, the BLM’s Big Game Resource Management Plan Amendment.
What You Can Do
The BLM’s adoption of well-vetted management actions would help minimize big game habitat loss, compensate for some of the adverse impacts to Colorado big game herds, and facilitate responsible recreation development throughout the state. Join us in calling on the BLM to set this direction. Take action using our simple advocacy tool to push for the responsible management of recreation and big game habitats through the Big Game Resource Management Plan Amendment.
Photo: Dan Swackhammer