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Seasonal closures help alleviate wildlife stress

Locations: News Published

By Kate Phillips
Sopris Sun Correspondent

Winter is in full effect here in the valley, and local authorities are bundling up to welcome and educate the influx of outdoor recreationists.

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There is no question that the Roaring Fork Valley is rich in wildlife and open space, but as the snow begins to pile up this space becomes limited for wildlife. As a result, experts are continuing to implement seasonally trail closures for habitat preservation and migration patterns.

Carbondale District Wildlife Manager John Groves said winter trail closures are a team effort in the valley. Recommendations are made by Colorado Division of Wildlife and decisions to close come from the Forest Service and BLM.

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“Our recommendations for winter closures are based on higher concentrations of deer and elk in certain areas,” Groves said. For example, The Crown is seasonally closed to motorized and mechanized (e.g., bikes) vehicles in order to ensure the deer and elk have adequate grazing zones.

“Deer, elk and bighorn sheep are on a starvation diet, during the winter,” he said. “They spend the spring, summer and most of fall fattening up so they have enough calories during the winter months. They are still eating, but the nutritional value is not equal to what they need.”

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The closures help alleviate any stress these big game species might encounter when energy conservation is critical.

White River National Forest District Ranger  Kevin Warner added that, “Dogs are tough on wildlife, especially this time of year. Even while on leash dogs can stress wildlife out by barking or spooking the animals.”

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Specifically, Forest Service Road 310 along Avalanche Creek is closed to vehicles. The area north of Road 310 is closed to humans, and the entire area is closed to dogs from Nov. 15 through May 1, according to the White River National Forest. Recreationists are allowed to snowshoe, hike, or cross country ski in designated zones, but even these passive recreations can disturb the bighorn sheep population.

“Studies show that passive recreation is as impactive as motorized recreation,” Groves said. “With non-motorized recreation you can sneak up on the animal, which can then startle them. It also takes longer to move through the area, which causes stress on the wildlife. They are using extra energy to watch and be concerned.”

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So where can outdoor recreationists enjoy the wintry months? Groves suggests areas that are above the scrub oak, on well-established trails, and places with less animal activity. Since the grass is typically covered during the harsh winter months, big game will graze on oak brush and woody substances at lower elevations. Groves recommends that recreationists stay at higher elevations where the snow is more plentiful and wildlife is less likely to roam.

Babbish Gulch, Marion Gulch, and the top of McClure Pass are all great areas to recreate while still enjoying a winter experience.

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Mike Pritchard, Executive Director of Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association (RFMBA), is currently in the midst of a four-year proposal to change prohibitions on mechanized vehicles and to find new routes that allow fat bikers. Specifically, RFMBA is interested in areas where snowmobilers are allowed and trails that are already groomed.

“The White River National Forest has prohibitions of wheeled bikes that some users are not even aware of,” Pritchard said. “As fat biking gains popularity in the valley, we are noticing a need for new routes.”

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Pritchard notes that RFMBA is currently working with WRNF to reduce trespassing on restricted riding zones, such as WRNF land around Sunlight Mountain. While most people are respectful of the closures, Pritchard said every now and then they are asked to help identify trespassers. WRNF has yet to conduct studies on the impact of fat bike-specific recreation, and cyclists are encouraged to stay off restricted routes until further information is presented.

Despite these restrictions, Pritchard said there are plenty of areas to fat bike that are both legal and enjoyable.

The Aspen Fat Bike Loop is a short — but fun — loop that combines nordic trails, groomed singletrack and plowed areas. The loop starts and ends at the Aspen Golf Course and rides through Marolt Open Space and Maroon Creek Trail. Users are reminded to stay on designated trails and not veer into restricted nordic zones. Additionally, cyclists can enjoy all trails south of Elk Traverse on Red Hill, the Rio Grande Trail (with the exception of a two mile stretch between Rock Bottom Ranch and Catherine Store), Prince Creek trails below North Porcupine, Grandstaff Trails in Glenwood Springs and some lower New Castle trails.

Pritchard also emphasizes that riding when the conditions are right and knowing how to use the right gear are crucial for a fun and safe winter riding experience.

“The key to riding is frozen, not when the snow is melting or slushy,” Pritchard notes. “Fat biking is harder during the heat of the day, so you’ll want to wait for the cold. When the snow is fresh, that is the time to ski!” It is also recommended that fat tire bikes have a pressure between 3 and 7 psi and that they not leave a rut greater than 1 inch.

As the snow continues to fall this season, all authorities agree to continually check weather and avalanche conditions, know before you go and heed seasonal closure signage. Visit fs.usda.gov/alerts/whiteriver/alerts-notices to learn more about seasonal closures.

The RFMBA is always interested in trail education and expanding the fat bike community. Visit RFMBA online at www.rfmba.org or attend the Aspen Fat Bike Race on Feb. 1 to learn more about this growing sport.

Winter recreation pro tips
Be aware of new and old signage
Stay on well-established trails with little wildlife
During heavy snow years, higher elevation is better
Reduce ruts and other trail disturbances
If possible, leave your dog at home or on leash
As always, check avalanche and weather conditions

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