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Outdoor recreation impacts elk near Vail, CO

Colorado elk

Photo credit: Shutterstock

In and around Vail, Colorado, outdoor recreation is taking a toll on elk.  While habitat encroachment, fossil fuel development and predators are often to blame for a dip in wildlife population, this time it appears to be mountain bikers, hikers, backcountry skiers, ATV and Jeep enthusiasts and motorcycle riders. Yes, unfortunately, the rise in outdoor recreation in places like Yosemite National Park (where as many as 5 million people visit each year) has resulted in higher calf mortality among the elk that roam in these areas, High Country News reports.

Recent research has acknowledged that social media – and the sharing of more wilderness “hot spots”—has created this newfound interest in outdoor recreation, spurring on a 24/7 mentality about when, where and how to enjoy the outdoors. However, in Colorado, it’s always been popular. In fact, since 2009, trail use has more than doubled in Vail and some trails “host as many as 170,000 people in a year,” according to High Country News.

According to Bill Andree, who served as Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s (CPW) Vail district wildlife manager until he retired in 2018, “night trail use in some areas has also gone up 30% in the past decade” with more people “traveling even deeper into woods and higher up peaks” due to “improved technology and in part to escape crowds.” 

One unit in particular, Unit 45, which is located in the peaks of the Colorado Rockies, has experienced significant population declines since the early 2010s. Bill Alldredge, a retired wildlife professor at Colorado State University, started studying the unit in the 1980s after ski resorts and trail systems began expanding in the area. He tracked the impact on elk calves through radio collars and discovered “about 30% of the elk calves died when their mothers were disturbed an average of seven times during calving,” according to High Country News. Further modeling found that if a cow elk was disturbed 10 times during calving, all the calves would die; however, eliminating the disturbances caused by outdoor recreation resulted in regular, healthy calves.

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“If you’ve ever had a pregnant wife, and in the third trimester you chase her around the house in two feet of snow, you’ll get an idea of what she thinks about it,” said Andree.

In 2017, the Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance wanted to build a new trail through more of Unit 45’s elk calving area, which brought the issue of outdoor recreational disturbances to light. Andree asked that the trails not be made due to the impact on elk calving, noting that closing certain trails during the season wouldn’t be regarded by everyone.

“Generally when you ask people to stay out of the area no matter what the reason is, 80-90% obey you,” Andree said. “But if you get 10% who don’t obey you, you haven’t done any good.”

As a solution, a trail ambassador program was created to ensure more signs were posted at closures and volunteers staked out trailheads to keep people away during the calving season. In 2018, it appeared to work well, according to High Country News. Will it continue to help? Only time will tell. 

Regardless, Devin Duval, CPW’s district wildlife manager in the area, says that “[i]f trail building and closure violations in critical habitat continue, anticipates the worst.”


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Phillip C. - posted 7 months ago on 10-17-2019 04:31:05 pm

I grew up hunting unit 44 right next to 45 and the entire Eagle valley was developed destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of elk habitat. Honestly in Colorado land development is a far larger issue than increased recreation.

Josh S. - posted 8 months ago on 09-04-2019 03:53:25 pm
S.E. Idaho

"One solution would be to close backcountry access roads to mechanized travel during calving season."

If you are referring to motorized as mechanized, the above statement is a common misconception. When an animal hears a motorized vehicle it is usually from a distance and the animal has some time to casually move away.

I was recently speaking with a Forest Service LEO about this and he told me that the last study he had seen, Mtn Bikers (being the worst) and Hikers with Dogs cause more stress to animals than motorized vehicles. Reason being, the wildlife doesn't realize the intrusion until they are very near, causing them to make a mad dash with a greater energy expenditure, to flee the area.

I regularly hike with my dogs, used to Mtn Bike a lot and I own a dirt and atv so I am guilty of all sins and not pointing fingers at any user groups.

"the next step would be to ban all recreation in the area during calving season." To me, this is the only answer for areas that are experiencing a calf mortality rate that is detrimental to herd objective.

Michael C. - posted 8 months ago on 09-04-2019 02:25:56 pm

One solution would be to close backcountry access roads to mechanized travel during calving season. If that doesn't decrease calf mortality then the next step would be to ban all recreation in the area during calving season.

Eventually, with decreasing revenue from elk hunting, it'll come down to a legislative battle between the outdoor recreation industry and CPW.

Vance W. - posted 8 months ago on 09-03-2019 11:51:16 am
Anthem AZ

This same thing seems to be happening in Arizona, particularly in units 6A and 5A/B. There is constant human presence in these units from hikers, bikers and UTVs. I don't have any science based counts but personal observations have been in the last 10 years I see less and less Elk and the deer have almost disappeared in most of the unit. Driving through the unit at night in the fall you would almost always see Elk but the last two years I've seen very few until the rut was in full swing making them way more active. Sitting a tank this year in the earlier archery deer season we had 6 groups in UTVs come by that were just riding from 4pm to dark.

Gary H. - posted 8 months ago on 09-03-2019 06:43:23 am

Time to start hitting people where it hurts the most. Their pocketbooks.

Fine people back to poverty that dont obey the laws.

Dave W. - posted 8 months ago on 09-01-2019 02:38:42 pm

I hope this reaches the masses.

I’ve lived in Colorado since 2000 and have seen a huge decline in not only Elk numbers but in Deer as well.
But we also have another problem besides human traffic in the mountains, “predators”
If you come to Colorado and hunt, please help us with predator control.