(Hunters/Wildlife Advocates Applaud Decision)
During the spring of 2022 Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Southwest Group Assistant Regional Director Alex Krebs got wind of a proposed mountain bike trail system in the Jackson Mountain area north of Pagosa Springs. Alex is an elk hunter and knows the Jackson Mountain
area includes critical habitat and migration corridor for elk and deer. And with increasing development and pressure on the landscape, Jackson Mountain serves as an important wildlife refuge.
As detailed in a 2018 Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers report (“Impacts of Off-Road Recreation on Public Lands Habitat”), “Wildlife habitat in Colorado is being significantly impacted by the proliferation of mechanized (i.e., mountain bike) and motorized (ATV/OHV) trails on public lands.
Sportsmen and wildlife managers are finding that elk hunting opportunities, in particular, are being compromised by trail development in many parts of the state.”
“For years we’ve been personally encountering and hearing directly from public lands agency staff and our members that illegal trail building is rampant in many areas of the state and proliferating,” said Colorado BHA Co-Chair David Lien (a former Air Force officer). “Elk herds and other wildlife are suffering as a result. Multiple Colorado elk herds in mechanized trail use areas and elsewhere are in decline.” As a result of these problematic trends, Alex—in conjunction with other southwest Colorado BHA leaders, including Luke Kline, Blake Mamich and Dan Parkinson—decided to take action.
“I actually sat down and met the with Pagosa Ranger district team on a teams call in August of 2022,” Alex explained. “We dove into some of the proposed miles of trails … It seemed like the momentum was there and the trails were going to be constructed.” “This trail proposal, if approved, sets precedent that the USFS not only allows illegal trail construction but encourages and accepts it as a legitimate means of bypassing proper planning procedure,” Alex stated in a letter to Forest Service District Ranger Josh Peck.
“It’s frustrating,” Doug Purcell, CPW’s District Wildlife Manager serving Pagosa Springs, said. “The trails on Jackson Mountain are illegal trails, and we’re not asking people to not be allowed to use the forest, but we are trying to preserve the most important areas.” “Interestingly, it sounded very much like there would be little in the way of NEPA alternatives that fully alleviated the concerns I was hearing from biologists,” Alex added. “This led me to believe this would get rubber stamped, but then the exact opposite happened.”
During February 2023 Southwest Group Assistant Regional Director Luke Kline initiated sending out a Colorado BHA Action Alert (“Jackson Mountain Public Comment Deadline”) stating (in part): “It’s time to take action to mitigate the impact of recreation trails on wildlife populations insouthwest Colorado. COMMENTS DUE BY THURSDAY FEBRUARY 23. This is not the time to be complacent. It is a David vs. Goliath era for wildlife conservation.”
“Now, a worst case scenario trail development plan, in part, initiated by illegal mountain bike trail construction has emerged on Jackson Mountain near Pagosa Springs. This project, if approved in its current iteration, will set precedent for recreationists to build trails wherever they like on public lands without consequence and to the detriment of our wildlife.”
“The Jackson Mountain ‘Area of Focus’ and proposed trail system overlaps with important deer and elk migration corridors, and a significant portion is an important winter concentration area for elk. This is the wrong project in the wrong place … Please stand up for wildlife by advocating that the Jackson Mountain trails system either be scrapped entirely or highly modified to consider negative impacts to wildlife.”
During March 2023 Alex—with input from multiple other southwest Colorado BHA leaders and others—submitted Colorado BHA comments on the “Jackson Mountain Proposal,” detailing some of the many problems associated with this proposed trail system. In particular, there seemed to have been no serious consideration regarding the impact on big game and other regional wildlife.
Then, during April 2023, the San Juan National Forest Pagosa Ranger District completed the scoping phase of the Jackson Mountain Landscape Project and decided not to move forward with the proposed mountain bike trail system. “Concerns over the probable impacts of a trail system on an important big game migration corridor have led me to conclude that we would be in error in proceeding with the analysis of the trail proposal as currently envisioned,” said District Ranger Josh Peck.
“As it is supposed to do, the scoping process and the comments we received provided more information and an opportunity to reassess the proposal,” Peck added. “The items that gave me pause were:
1) Planned remapping of migration corridors by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which will increase areas of high-priority elk habitat on Jackson Mountain.
2) The potential for future private land development to the west, which would further constrict this corridor and amplify the impacts of a trail system.
3) Current Forest Service research related to impacts to elk from nonmotorized and motorized recreation on elk dispersion.”
“Colorado’s Guide to Planning Trails with Wildlife in Mind was a major leveraging point for many of our concerns,” Alex said. “The guidance wastaken half-heartedly by the stakeholders, and I think that cost them a trail system at the end of the day. This trail system was going to overlap critical winter habitat for big game, and we had the guide to backup why that isn’t acceptable.”
“One of the processes outlined in the guide is to have open conversations before lines are drawn on a map,” Alex emphasized. “We felt like having them already on the ground was a big first step in the wrong direction. Ultimately however, it came down to the impact this specific trail system was projected to have based on the input of biologists with CPW as well as the guidelines set forth in the trails planning document and the substantive comments from conservation groups and their members.”
“Winning this segment of habitat for wildlife is just one step in the right direction though. I think it is extremely important to keep the momentum up and for BHA to be present as stakeholders in the inception stage of trail proposals” Alex added. “I don’t think it is sustainable for the FS to deny trails from here on out once IMBA and other organizations learn from their mistakes. BHA needs to be at the early conversations so we can help limit wildlife impacts.”
However, perhaps our public lands agencies are starting to get the message. The Lemon Gulch trail system proposal, a would-be 52-mile trail network with mountain bikers as a primary user group in Prineville, Oregon has also been withdrawn from consideration by the U.S. Forest Service. The proposal had been in development for years and was withdrawn by the district ranger after a final environmental assessment was published on April 26, 2023.
Outreach & Responsibility
“The vast majority of us aren’t advocating for our desire to hunt, we are advocating for the protection of wildlife and their habitat,” explained Colorado BHA Board member Kassi Smith. “How can we compromise those protections? If the question of conservation was put back on us in the form of, ‘well, in order to protect the longevity of this species, you must give up hunting them or accessing their habitat,’ the majority of us would make that decision without hesitation.”
“Outreach is also really important I think,” Alex added. “My wife coaches mountain biking and a lot of our members are mountain bikers, hikers or otherwise. We all must be stewards. It’s the only way multi-use forests can be sustainable in the long run. Awareness of our impacts as users is a critical component to future conservation from all user groups in my opinion.”
In a January 2013 Traditional Bowhunter story (“The Future of Elk Hunting”) local Durango author David Petersen, a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot, stated what should be obvious to all hunters and many other wildlife advocates. “The three-part formula for assuring a rich elk hunting future … could hardly be simpler,” he explained. “Those three essential elements are: habitat, habitat, and habitat.” Coincidentally, Alex joined BHA after reading books by Petersen, founder of the first BHA state chapter here in Colorado.
“While hunters have a multitude of programs in place nationwide to protect and enhance wildlife habitat and deter/catch lawbreakers (i.e., we endeavor to police our own), like turn in poachers (TIP) and various reward programs, we’re anxiously waiting for the day when other public lands users step up and take responsibility for mitigating and deterring the negative impacts (legal or otherwise) of their public lands use,” chapter Co-Chair David Lien added.
It's painfully obvious to most hunters and many others who frequent public lands that in too many locales “access” has become “excess.” To help protect elk and other wildlife habitat from the growing menace of illegal trail building the Colorado BHA chapter increased its reward from $500 to $1,000 for reports or information leading to a conviction of those responsible for building illegal trails on public lands.
-“Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Increase Reward For Illegal Trail Construction (Help Stop Trail Building ‘Free-For-All’).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/10/23.
-“Trails vs. Elk: ‘They’re Just Dying Off.’” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 12/3/21.
-Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Colorado’s 2021 Guide for Planning Trails with Wildlife in Mind.” Appendix A includes standard protocols for how and where the trails are developed (i.e., Avoid, Minimize, Mitigate).
-“Opportunities to Improve Sensitive Habitat and Movement Route Connectivity for Colorado’s Big Game Species.” Colorado Department of Natural Resources: 9/7/21.
-Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “2020 Status Report: Big Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors.” CPW: May 2020.
-Sylvia Kantor. “Seeking Ground Less Traveled: Elk Responses to Recreation.” Science Findings #219 (U.S. Department of Agriculture-Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station): September 2019. https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/sciencef/scifi219.pdf
Founded by Mike Beagle, a former U.S. Army field artillery officer, and formed around an Oregon campfire, in 2004, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers is the voice for our nation’s wild public lands, waters and wildlife. With members spread out across all 50 states and 13 Canadian provinces and territories—including chapters in 48 states, two Canadian provinces and one territory, and Washington, D.C.—BHA brings an authentic, informed, boots-on-the-ground voice to the conservation of public lands. The Colorado BHA chapter was founded by David Petersen (a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot) in 2005 (the first official BHA chapter).
 Reuben Schafir. “Forest Service reverses course on Jackson Mountain trails north of Pagosa Springs: Ranger district removes proposed construction of 40 miles of trail from project.” Durango Herald: 4/24/23.
 Lorena Williams. “Jackson Mountain Landscape Project Proposal Under Revision: Some proposed project components halted following scoping period.” Forest Service-San Juan National Forest News Release: 4/17/23.
 David Petersen. “The Future of Elk Hunting.” Traditional Bowhunter magazine: December/January 2013, p. 69.