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Trust Our Land: Wildlife on the move in Eagle County

by Bergen Tjossem

Like locals and visitors in the Eagle Valley near the start of ski season, wildlife are on the move. Have you noticed?

Winter in Eagle County is tough for deer and elk. Their favorite foods and grazing areas get covered in snow, so they must move to find pasture that can sustain them through our long winter. Elk, due to their large size, are looking for a place to relax and save energy. Deer are looking for food since they cannot store as much energy as their larger cousins. What they both have in common is a need to get away from deep snow and disturbances (such as people) to wait out the cold months.

Evolution has prepared deer and elk well for this annual hardship. However, they are ill-equipped to withstand the compounding survival pressure imposed by people and infrastructure. As a result, their populations are rapidly declining in our area. In 1980, there were well over 26,000 mule deer south of Interstate 70 from Vail to Aspen — now there are only 16,000. Local elk populations have decreased by over 50 percent during that timeframe.

The reasons for these alarming population declines are not a mystery. In fact, they represent a common pattern of population and species declines throughout the continent. The declines are largely a result of habitat loss and disturbance.


Summer range for deer and elk in Eagle County is vast. Winter range, on the other hand, is dwindling. Wildlife rely on the fertile, lower elevation lands along river valleys to survive the long winter because of the relatively shallow snowpack that develops. River valleys are also where we live. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of habitat left along the Eagle River between East Vail and Glenwood Springs. The corridors between the patches that do exist, like the Eagle River Preserve, are increasingly difficult for wildlife to navigate due to roads, cars and outdoor recreationists.


For elk and deer, surviving winter is all about energy conservation. Both moving and reacting to stress, such as encountering people, require energy. A handful of stressful human or dog encounters can be the difference between survival and death. Each disturbance, no matter how slight, has a cumulative effect on individual deer and elk. Even if the animal doesn’t move or even look up, the stress can have drastic impacts on its ability to survive.

In the United States, proceeds from hunting and fishing license sales have traditionally paid for wildlife monitoring and management. Unfortunately for this funding model, hunting license sales have decreased by around 90 percent since 2007. So, both wildlife populations and the agencies that help protect them face threats.

A functioning ecosystem depends on a diversity of species, large and small. Deer and elk are important links in the local food web and are critical components of our natural environment. They support a system that naturally protects our air and water. So, how can we protect them?

As a community, we can protect habitat, corridors between habitat patches, and reduce stress on wildlife during the winter. Eagle County voters overwhelming approved the Eagle County Open Space program renewal, which will continue to protect important pieces of habitat in collaboration with the Eagle Valley Land Trust. Eagle County has also organized the Safe Passages for Wildlife project, which brings together local stakeholders to discuss, protect and improve important wildlife corridors. These passages will protect wildlife from vehicle collisions as they move from summer to winter habitat. You can attend the Board of County Commissioners presentation on Tuesday, Dec. 4, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. to learn more.


Observing and obeying winter trail closures is a crucial way to reduce stress on wildlife during their most vulnerable months. It is how our community carefully balances the needs of wildlife with recreation.

The following conserved properties have seasonal trail closures: Eagle River Preserve, West Avon Preserve, Abrams Creek Open Space and Brush Creek Valley Ranch and Open Space. Thank you for observing these and other closures and for keeping dogs away from wildlife.

If you would like to do more to help protect our wildlife, consider supporting or volunteering with local organizations that are working to preserve wildlife habitat including the Eagle Valley Land Trust.

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