CO BHA Publishes Memo on Illegal Trails

Outdoor recreation is part of our Colorado identity and values, it shapes our communities and how we live our lives. While the growth in outdoor recreation is to be celebrated, it also poses a significant and dynamic threat to wildlife, the loss of habitat. The scale and pace of this habitat loss are alarming and it underscores a growing need for guidance and leadership from state and federal agency partners. To sustain healthy wildlife populations, it's imperative that we ensure the habitat needs of wildlife and our state's recreation priorities are balanced and sustainable into the future. 

 Many of our members are very concerned about trail-related recreation impacts on wildlife, in fact, it is one of Colorado BHA's top priorities. As an organization we have dedicated significant energy to engaging on this issue, we were involved in the Planning Trails with Wildlife in Mind Handbook working group, we have board members in many of the recently formed Regional Partnerships, and we launched a program that will provide a financial reward for reports that lead to successful citations for illegal trail building and illegal use during trail closures. We have engaged in numerous ways at local, state, and federal levels in attempts to improve decision-making, raise concerns, and address trails related issues that are leading to habitat loss and declining wildlife populations across the state.  

Please See Illegal Trails Memo Here:

What is at stake if we continue on the path we are on? 

We fundamentally are facing a supply and demand problem. We are moving in a direction where the needs for recreation and the needs of wildlife are intersecting at the edges more than ever before.

To accommodate the growing desire for outdoor recreation our federal, state and county partners have responded by promoting trail development.  Unfortunately, too often these trail development plans fail to adequately address or accommodate the habitat needs of our state's wildlife populations - and the impacts are being realized state-wide. Now is the time to investigate what needs to be done to ensure that the sighting and development of trails account for potential impacts on wildlife populations and either limits/consolidates trail development or adequately mitigates the impact.  There is a need for regulatory change, social communication and education, and financing management. 

Understanding Wildlife Habitat and Our Impact

Healthy wildlife populations depend on a suite of unfragmented habitat types that serve critical purposes during a given season and time of day. As the demand for outdoor recreation has increased so too has our footprint. As we have pushed our way into these landscapes we have pushed wildlife out, compressing habitat available to wildlife. The habitat we are losing is widespread – leading to increasingly fragmented landscapes on which wildlife depend. This change has been incremental, but ceaseless – difficult to recognize at times but very real and deserving of our attention. While the population of Colorado continues to grow, the amount of land available for recreation and wildlife habitat remains finite.

Colorado is the 7th fastest growing state, and we have an insatiable appetite for outdoor recreation with 92% of our population spending time outdoors multiple times a month. Continuing along with our current practices and pace of non-motorized trail development and use is unsustainable for wildlife and is contributing to significant population declines across the state. We have known this for many years. The good old days are behind us. We can’t afford to make the same mistakes if we care about wildlife. We are facing increasing demand for increasingly scarce resources. To address this we need better direction from the state, we need to form a coalition of the willing representing stakeholders with the greatest impact, and we need to utilize the best available science to guide decision making. 

83% of Colorado residents participate in trails related activities, making it the most popular outdoor recreational activity in Colorado by far. From 2012-2016 spending from trail users increased by $4.1 billion, with total spending from mountain bikers contributing $1.1 billion annually. Additionally, the average trail recreation days per user increased 44% from 2012 to 2017. This growing demand is having significant impacts on wildlife, yet to date, the non-motorized trail community driving these impacts has not paid into the system in a meaningful way to address these impacts. This is unsustainable.  

The majority of outdoor users and residents are unaware of their impact on wildlife. They aren’t aware of how their wildlife encounters seen and unseen are impacting the behaviors, survival, and reproduction of our herds. We don’t begrudge a mountain biker for wanting to get lost down a lonely trail in the middle of a wild landscape. We can directly relate to that motivation...even if our purposes and awareness are different than their own. We acknowledge the important role that our outdoor recreation economy plays in Colorado. But that said, we believe we need to do better to direct recreation in the future so that it doesn’t come with such a steep cost to wildlife...and we believe the uses driving wildlife impacts should be responsible for addressing them. This is how every other industry in Colorado works. Hunters and Anglers have been doing this for 125 years. 

Hunters and Anglers contribute $3.25 billion to our economy annually and we contribute the vast majority of funding to protect and manage Colorado’s abundant and diverse wildlife populations − over 960 species. This is a source of pride for the hunting community and our hope is that the trails committee embraces this opportunity to foster a conservation mindset and support wildlife conservation of their own.  

There is demand for additional trail development statewide and additional trails will be developed. What should drive trail development priorities and what should the expectation be in your community for trail access as compared to other similar communities?   

The best available science should guide all trail development priorities moving forward. This can’t be optional. We believe we need to set clear expectations at the state level that ensures trail projects in conflict with wildlife values will not move forward. We believe that in addition to being required, CPW consultation should carry more weight in determining the feasibility of trail proposals. We also believe that we need to create stronger standards and guidelines to ensure future trail development is compatible with wildlife priorities.  

In terms of shaping expectations at the community level, we think the first step is to manage our expectations as users. We are likely looking at a need for users to accept that their opportunity shouldn’t come before what’s best for the resource – and that they might not be able to use the same trail systems the same way as they do today. This might mean more permitting, more seasonal closures, and stronger enforcement. If we fail to manage user impacts effectively we are going to degrade the user experience and continue to undermine wildlife priorities.  

Our first solution to addressing trail overcrowding can’t continue to be to build new trails. It’s going to require managing the use of our current trail infrastructure more effectively.  

In addition to stronger user management on existing trails, we also need to work to ensure we have the capacity to effectively manage future trail systems. The manageability of proposed trail projects needs to be elevated further in the approval process. 

Ultimately, none of this is going to be possible if we don’t all come together to the table willingly. We’re hopeful that we can work together through the Regional Partnerships, in our local communities, and at the state level to balance wildlife and recreation priorities. We don’t have time to lose.

About Brien Webster

Programs Manager & Colorado & Wyoming Chapter Coordinator

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