By Jeremy Heiman
The Sopris Sun
Two officials from the Colorado Division of Wildlife have made it clear that if the Sutey Ranch northeast of Red Hill becomes public property, they want it to be managed for maximum benefit to wildlife with minimal recreational use or no recreation at all.
John Groves, the DOW district wildlife manager for Carbondale, and Kevin Wright, district manager for Aspen, appeared before the Carbondale Board of Trustees Jan. 12 urging the trustees to support a management plan for the ranch that would preserve the deer and elk winter range there, should a proposed land swap bring it into Bureau of Land Management possession.
“One thing I want to stress is the Sutey Ranch is absolutely critical winter range for deer and elk,” said Wright, who until recent years was manager of the Carbondale district. “I want the board to understand there has to be an appropriate management plan.”
Billionaire Leslie Wexner, the current owner of the 520-acre Sutey Ranch, bought the property to use as a bargaining chip in his effort to gain control of a 1,268-acre parcel owned by the BLM on the north flank of Mt. Sopris in Pitkin County.
The Mt. Sopris land is located between two of Wexner’s large parcels. He hoped to trade the Sutey Ranch for the Mt. Sopris property, but Pitkin County first refused to back the deal, and last week unveiled a counter offer.
Within its offer, Pitkin County proposed combining some BLM and open space lands and other acreage at the base of Mt. Sopris to preserve public access to federal lands. Wexner rejected that idea, stating that it would negatively affect ranching operations and wildlife.
The two DOW managers told the trustees that, along with a prohibition of winter recreation, they would like to see the Sutey Ranch remain closed to mountain biking.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute,” Groves told The Sopris Sun. “But once they put in the trails, it’s hard to regulate.” He said the BLM has only one enforcement officer to cover the 567,000 acres administered by the agency’s Glenwood Springs field office, extending from Vail to Parachute and from Toponas to Aspen.
During the DOW presentation, trustee Ed Cortez questioned who would enforce the regulations put in place in a management plan, and Wright conceded that’s not at all certain.
“The division’s not in charge of that. It’s a good question,” he continued. “I don’t know how that’s going to happen. Right now, the BLM’s priority is oil and gas.”
Davis Farrar, president of the Red Hill Council, said in an interview with The Sun that he was a little startled to learn of the DOW’s rather hard-line position. He said he thinks the DOW should bring the Red Hill Council, which includes mountain bike enthusiasts and other nonmotorized recreationists, into the discussion.
“I kind of wish they’d had a dialogue with the Red Hill Council before they went to the trustees,” Farrar said. “That’s a little frustrating, in my mind. There’s a big recreation community that, frankly, is supportive of wildlife.”
When the land swap was proposed, the council advocated expansion of Red Hill’s trail system into the Sutey Ranch.
The reason for the concern, Groves said, is that although herds currently have fairly good numbers – as many as 100 elk use the ranch, along with numerous deer – numbers of young have declined. This portends a problem for the future of the herds.
“We’re seeing some significant impact to our cow-calf
ratios,” Groves said, “and the survivability of [elk] calves.” Cow-calf ratios locally are 35 to 38 calves per 100 cows, he said. Healthy herds need to have 48 to 52 calves per 100 cows to maintain the population numbers.
Wright said when an elk is stressed by disturbances, then its body weight is low and its condition is fragile.
The two noted that the herds are being displaced from winter range by human recreation activities such as snowshoeing, cross country skiing and especially dog walking.
“Red Hill is not winter range any more,” Wright said. Dogs off leashes are a serious problem there, he said. “We can’t afford to lose winter range after winter range because people want to cross country ski or snowshoe because it’s convenient.”
“Dogs off leash were a big issue on Red Hill,” Farrar said. He said the council voted for leashes to be required and expressed that to the BLM. But BLM officials said they don’t have the ability to enforce the regulation, so it never became part of the rules.
Farrar added that in management discussions concerning the Crown, several years ago, various user groups were represented, but in the end mountain biking was limited and motor vehicle use was permitted so hunters can more easily haul out their game.
Much of the DOW’s agenda, Farrar claimed, stems from the way the agency gets its funding, through the sale of hunting licenses.
“There’s a real disconnect between what we promote and what the agencies promote,” Farrar said.
He said the Red Hill Council supports a management plan for the Sutey Ranch that would include winter closures, nonmotorized use only, and a biological study to determine whether sensitive or threatened species of plants or animals are present, so that those species can be protected.