Trust Our Land: Protect Wildlife as Seasons Change
By Bergen Tjossem. Photo by Eaglevalleywild.org
Well, it happened again. Summer gave way to fall which is transitioning into early winter faster than many of us are ready to accept.
We’re not the only ones preparing our minds and bodies for winter. Wildlife like deer and elk are too. As the seasons shift and the higher elevations pack on seasonal snow, most of the large wildlife descend into our valleys where they have more food, but less space. As cohabitants, it’s up to us to be mindful of their needs during the time of year when they are most vulnerable.
Unfortunately, local elk populations have dropped significantly – over 50% – since 2007. Deer face a similar decline. These animals haven’t moved somewhere else; the herds have decreased due to a variety of factors. One major contributor is disturbance. Elk and deer are distinctly vulnerable to disturbances throughout the winter. It doesn’t just take a chasing dog or a motor vehicle to cause damage either. A quiet hiker, skier, or jogger can cause these animals stress even from a distance. Cumulative stresses take a toll over the long, harsh winters that Eagle County experiences.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to reduce your impact on wildlife during the winter: respect seasonal trail closures implemented by our public land managers. You’ll likely notice them throughout the county as winter sets in. Trail closures are a management tool that can address a wide variety of ecological issues. These closures are carefully timed to give wildlife the best possible chance to survive the winter and reproduce.
To protect the wildlife that we love, we must give them space. In addition to obeying trail closures, a handy trick is to measure distance using your thumb. If you are lucky enough to encounter an animal on an open trail, extend your arm fully, close one eye, put up your thumb, and try to block the animal with it. If your thumb fully covers the animal, your distance is adequate. If you can’t cover the animal with your thumb, slowly give it more space until you can. These actions may just save that animal’s life.
Habitat loss and fragmentation are other leading causes of wildlife declines. Even communities dedicated to thoughtful planning, habitat health, and conscientious growth are not immune to these issues. In a county with a population expected to double in just over 30 years, available space that provides critical winter wildlife habitat is not something we have in abundance. However, there are several important corridors, calving grounds, and riparian access points, all of which are critically important for wildlife survival, that we can choose to protect.
This type of protection is not possible, realistic, or desired on all land where wildlife roam, but our community has continued to push for innovative conservation techniques, improved cross-agency management, and creative solutions to balance the needs of wildlife, our local population, and economy. For example, the Town of Eagle is adjusting seasonal trail closures to December 1st to be consistent with surrounding Bureau of Land Management lands to reduce complexity and to protect wildlife during the winter.
Protecting wildlife is a responsibility that unites all of us. Trail closures are one of our community’s most important tools for giving wildlife the space they need during times of the year when they are most vulnerable. Fortunately, awareness about the importance of trail closures has been growing in our county; local trail users and advocates are increasingly complying, and even championing, seasonal closures to protect wildlife.
For a comprehensive list of trail closure status and timing, check out the Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance’s information page at www.vvmta.org/seasonaltrailclosures/.
Bergen Tjossem is the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s Deputy Director and can be reached at Bergen@evlt.org. To learn more about the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s conservation work and how you can get involved, visit the website at www.evlt.org.