In support of our state’s elk, mule deer, trout and a myriad of other species that rely on public lands habitat for survival, the Colorado chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) is increasing 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.
Although BHA has offered $500 rewards for information leading to the conviction of illegal OHV/ATV use, e-bike use and dumping for many years (see this link for additional information), the Colorado chapter is the first to increase this reward to $1,000 for illegal mechanized and motorized trail construction on public lands.
“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.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has already reduced the number of limited cow elk licenses available to hunters by 68,000 licenses since 2004 to try to stabilize elk herds (see 2022 Big Game License Recommendation Summary By Species). Existing threats to Colorado’s big game herds commonly cited in CPW’s Herd Management Plans and reports—such as the 2020 Status Report: Big Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors and 2021-2022 Colorado Big Game Action Plan—include, but are not limited to: habitat loss, fragmentation, and year-round recreation.
An analysis by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) shows that some 40 percent of the most important elk habitat in Colorado is already impacted by non-motorized and motorized trail users. “This is one small additional step we can take to try and help moderate and hopefully deter additional illegal trail construction activity and help elk and other wildlife survive on their rapidly dwindling habitat,” Lien added.
“… 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.”
A Slippery Slope
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.”
And given that a whopping 85 percent of Colorado’s public lands are already open to biking, there are plenty of opportunities available without building a single new trail. In addition, most motorized routes are open to bikers. In fact, today some 92 percent of all national forest lands in Colorado lie within one mile of a road and there are over 17,000 miles of roads in Colorado’s national forests. How many miles are enough?
Reports from public land managers, hunters, anglers and others confirm that illegal mechanized and motorized trails are proliferating, and public lands agency staff do not have a fraction of the personnel (enforcement or otherwise) needed to, first, determine the full extent of this habitat-damaging activity and, second, prevent/deter it going forward.
Jon Holst, a former Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) employee, is currently Colorado Field Representative for TRCP. “According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, there are nearly 40,000 miles of mapped motorized and non-motorized trails in Colorado,” he explained. “Some estimates suggest there exists an additional 25 to 30 percent of unmapped, user-created trails near popular mountain biking communities.”
“Researchers have clearly demonstrated the impacts that … trails have on wildlife—especially big game populations—because human activity drives wildlife away from preferred habitats,” Holst added. “For example, dramatic increases in trail development and use in elk summer habitat near Vail corresponded to a nearly 50 percent decline in the elk population between 2001 and 2015.”
Mountain bikers building illegal trails in the Durango area is another example and an ongoing issue for land managers, wildlife officials and trail advocates who can’t rein in the longstanding problem. “We’re not talking small connector trails,” said Shannon Borders, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management. “We’re talking miles of illegally built trails. And it’s not like there’s not a ton of recreational opportunities around town.”
With so much of Colorado’s public lands base already crisscrossed with trails and roads, “access” has become “excess.” It’s a slippery slope from more mechanized and motorized trails to fewer elk, but here in Colorado we’re already getting a disturbing preview of how it ends. And the proposed Jackson Mountain trail system is another nail in the coffin.
Jackson Mountain: Illegal Trails “Free-For-All”
The Jackson Mountain “Area of Focus” proposed trail system in southwest Colorado is just one of many examples of illegal trail building run amok in critical elk habitat. Currently the Forest Service is reviewing the proposed 4,500-acre park north of Pagosa Springs where miles of new trails is expected to have a significant impact on the landscape. Below we include excepts/observations/input from four southwest Colorado stakeholders regarding the proposed Jackson Mountain trail system.
-Jonathan Romeo. “Slippery slope: A new proposed mountain bike park in Pagosa is ... complicated.” The Durango Telegraph: 9/29/22.
-Alex Krebs, Southwest Colorado BHA Assistant Regional Director. “RE: Jackson Mountain Proposal.” Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 3/6/23.
-Dan Parkinson, Colorado BHA Board Member. “RE: Jackson Mountain Landscape Project #61809 Comments.” Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 3/2/23.
-Adrian Archuleta, Area Wildlife Manager-Area 15. “RE: Jackson Mountain Project.” Colorado Parks and Wildlife: 2/21/23.
Observations #1: Jonathan Romeo, The Durango Telegraph
-“… Jackson Mountain serves as a critical habitat and migration corridor for elk and deer. And with so much development and pressure on the landscape already, Jackson Mountain has remained one of the last refuges.”
-“‘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.’”
-“Josh Peck, the Forest Service Ranger overseeing the Pagosa District, said … Mountain bikers have already been using illegal trails on Jackson Mountain … causing a host of issues …”
-“Indeed, one of the core criticisms of the project is that mountain bikers are being ‘rewarded’ for creating illegal trails …”
-“One group that has been critical of the plan is the San Juan Back Country Horsemen … ‘It seems the Forest Service is rewarding illegal trail-building in the Jackson Mountain area with an area trails plan for mountain bikers,’ SJBCH wrote.”
-“Brien Webster, Southwest program manager for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, shared a similar sentiment. ‘We don’t stand for this with other activities on public lands like mining or logging,’ he said. ‘And it’s important the outdoor recreation community be held to the same standard as all other activities on public lands, because there is an associated impact with new trails.’”
-“And perhaps the biggest issue is what a new mountain bike park would do to already-struggling elk and deer populations. To understand the potential impacts, one need look no farther than nearby Turkey Springs, CPW’s Purcell said. There, about 15-20 years ago, the Forest Service grappled with a nearly identical problem to Jackson Mountain when user-created trails started popping up. ‘It was a massive free-for-all’ …”
-“Purcell, who has lived in Pagosa for 20 years (and, for what it’s worth, is a mountain biker), said the Turkey Springs trail system ‘pretty much eliminated the use of that area’ by wildlife … ‘The wildlife is gone,’ Purcell said. ‘They just go around it.’”
-“The problem is, with all the development in Colorado, there are fewer and fewer places for wildlife to go, especially when it comes to migration routes and breeding grounds.”
-“… Purcell believes … once new trails are built, it will spur more illegal trails in protected areas. And, just as frustrating, Purcell said there are more suitable locations for a mountain bike park in Pagosa that don’t conflict with wildlife.”
-“‘This is urgent,’ BHA’s Webster said. ‘We are a fast-growing state with more and more recreation, and we are pushing wildlife out of the habitat they depend on. Wildlife is increasingly existing within the margins.’”
Observations #2: Alex Krebs, BHA
During March 2023 Southwest Colorado BHA Assistant Regional Director Alex Krebs submitted comments on the “Jackson Mountain Proposal,” detailing some of the many problems associated with this proposed trail system. In particular, there seems to have been no serious consideration regarding the impact on big game and other regional wildlife. A sample of our concerns are detailed below.
-“… the need to conserve intact migrations and facilitate habitat connectivity in a rapidly changing world has become increasingly urgent. This is especially true for areas like Southwestern Colorado with declining herd populations and calf recruitment rates …”
-“The importance of migration corridors cannot be understated and was recognized in 2019 by Colorado executive order D-2019-011.”
-“The planning process outlined by CPW’s ‘Colorado Guide to Planning Trails With Wildlife in Mind’ was designed to facilitate sustainable recreation opportunities. The first chapter is ‘The Collaborative Process.’ Within this chapter is a process outline that includes the first round of public engagement (page 9). Stated in this first round … is that no trails will be on the map yet. The Jackson Mountain Landscape already had non-system trails on the ground at this stage, as well as additional miles of trails that are now the foundation for the project scope.”
-“Non-system trails (i.e., illicit, illegal or social trails) have fallen into a pattern of approval by land agencies in Southwestern Colorado. The Log Chutes area north of Durango is a valid example of this.”
-“Not only does approval of these trails send a message to the public that they can have what they want as long as they make it first, it also ignores the proper planning steps required to avoid issues like erosion, sedimentation, sensitive wildlife habitat avoidance, trail density and route efficiency.”
-“The establishment of illicit, non-system trails is primarily a sign of enforcement deficiency within land agencies. Page 41 of ‘Planning Trails with Wildlife in Mind’ is dedicated to enforcement planning. It states that ‘Enforcement and education planning should consider current and future capacity.’”
-“Due to the presence of non-system trails in the Jackson Mountain area, it is evident that the Forest Service lacked necessary enforcement capacity to prevent illicit non-system trail construction. If the Jackson Mountain Project moves forward, what investment will the Forest Service make to step up enforcement? This will be especially important as illicit trails are in a pattern of gaining approval from the agency.”
-“The planning process has statutory and ethical requirements that in the case of Jackson Mountain are not being met.”
-“Another element to planning trails with wildlife in mind is the option to include seasonal trail closures in critical habitat. While this may seem like a viable option to protect stressed wildlife, it has proven to be ineffective due to public ignorance and lack of enforcement.”
-“This project proposal is based on a trail system that was created illegally, proving that people’s demands for recreation outweigh their conscience to protect wildlife.”
-“Guidance within Colorado’s Planning Trails with Wildlife in Mind has been largely ignored in the Jackson Mountain Landscape Project. The Forest Service has demonstrated a lack of enforcement capacity, leading to a network of non-system trails. Retroactively approving these trails and establishing new trail networks in the same area rewards abuse of publicly owned natural resources.”
Observations #3: Dan Parkinson, BHA
Colorado BHA Board member Dan Parkinson also submitted “Jackson Mountain Landscape Project #61809 Comments” during March 2023. “It appears that the FS (Forest Service) has failed to enforce at least two FS rules and regulations when it allowed mtn. bike trail construction and use,” he explains.
-“Cutting or otherwise damaging any timber, tree, or other forest product, except as authorized by permit, timber sale contract, Federal law or regulation (261.6a).”
-“Constructing, placing, or maintaining any kind of road, trail, structure, fence, enclosure, communication equipment, or other improvement on National Forest System land, without a special use authorization, contract, or approved operating plan (261.10a).”
-“Outdoor recreationists, especially mountain bike enthusiasts who definitely carve up public lands, often with the wink-wink support of the mountain biking industry, should not get a pass, as has apparently happened on the Jackson Mountain Landscape.”
-“Many mtn. bike trail proponent organizations, supported by an aggressive, well-funded outdoor recreation industry, seem hell bent on building more trails regardless of the laws broken or cost to wildlife.”
-“It is time for the FS to recognize the serious mistakes made in this decades-long process, stop the egregious trend of codifying illegal trail building behavior on Forest Service lands, scrap the proposed Jackson Mountain plan, and start over.”
Observations #4: Adrian Archuleta, CPW
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Area Wildlife Manager-Area 15 Adrian Archuleta submitted his “Jackson Mountain Project” comments on 2/21/23.
-“The proposed Jackson Mountain trail system poses a unique concern for the E-31 elk herd (San Juan Basin), which utilizes the Jackson Mountain area … It has been recognized by CPW Wildlife Managers that a calf:cow ratio of 40:100 is indicative of a healthy, slightly increasing population … The past five year average calf:cow ratio was 28:100.”
-“Displacement of animals from optimal habitat continues to be one of the driving factors that reduces the carrying capacity for elk herds in southwest Colorado. The proposed trails system will compound the problems the E-31 herd is currently facing in the area.”
-“According to state law, under certain circumstances, CPW is responsible for paying for damage caused by big game on private agricultural lands. If deer and elk are not able to use their traditional wintering areas on public lands, then they will be displaced to other areas and properties which may increase conflicts with private landowners. This issue will be compounded by the current proposed trail system.”
-“… Planning Trails with Wildlife in Mind (available here). This document provides step-by-step instructions on how to plan trails to minimize impacts to wildlife … CPW Continues to see proposals where trail locations are identified prior to assessing wildlife needs and concerns.”
-“ CPW recommends that the SJNF evaluate a plan for how a static number of law enforcement officers will handle the increase in trail miles and trail use in the area. This plan should identify ways to deter the formation of illegally created trails within the Jackson Mountain and Turkey Creek areas with the goal of preserving critical un-fragmented wildlife habitat.”
-“Big game winter habitats and migratory corridors are known to be a limiting factor on big game populations in western Colorado … Outdoor recreation associated with trails influence a variety of wildlife species in multiple ways.”
-“Due to avoidance of human activities associated with mountain biking and hiking, elk and deer increase their daily activity levels and movement, which reduces the time spent feeding or resting … The net result is a decrease on body condition, which affects individual health, survival and reproduction.”
-“Many wildlife species also avoid areas of human disturbance completely, which decreases the amount of available habitat.”
-“Contrary to popular opinion, elk and deer generally do not become habituated to hiking or mountain biking.”
-“Cumulatively, this leads to both immediate and long-term effects on individual animals and populations by decreasing the available energy for winter survival, growth, and reproduction, reducing the fitness of wildlife, and by displacing wildlife into marginal habitats.”
-“There is a large body of evidence documenting displacement of big game from roads and trails (including non-motorized trails) and a decline in habitat effectiveness for big game as road and trails densities increase (Wisdom et al 2018, Miller et al, 2001).”
-“As route densities increase beyond 1 mile per square mile it becomes increasingly necessary to implement greater management of the routes to maintain habitat effectiveness and utilization by wildlife … the best available science indicates that this guideline should also apply to non-motorized trails.”
-“CPW also recommends that the Pagosa Ranger District conduct a District wide travel management analysis to determine where non-motorized, single-track trail development or use may be sustainable in an effort to try and balance recreation and impacts to wildlife.”
-“The EA should evaluate the anticipated direct and functional loss of habitat across alternatives. Based on that analysis, a compensatory mitigation plan should be developed.”
The Jackson Mountain “Area of Focus” and proposed trail system overlaps important deer and elk migration corridors, and a significant portion is a winter concentration area for elk. This is the wrong project in the wrong place. “Colorado BHA members have experienced first-hand the effects of these illegal trail building activities on public lands across the state,” added Colorado BHA Co-Chair Don Holmstrom. “Fewer elk and more ruined hunts are increasingly the end result.”
An “illegal trail” is construction of any type of road or trail on public lands without agency permission and is punishable with fines and/or jail time. For example, on USFS land 36 CFR 261.10(a) makes it a class b misdemeanor to build trails without consent, punishable via up to $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail. Report illegal trail construction activity to your local public land manager and/or District Wildlife Manager (DWM) and help ensure that we continue to have quality habitat, hunts and access for all (see info. needed below):
- Date, location and description of the illegal trail building activity—when, where, what and who you saw. Collect as many details as possible, including: GPS points, name of nearby roads or trailheads, etc.
- Photos of the illegal trail and (if possible) those involved in the construction.
- Photos, supporting statements from other witnesses and any other documentation that you can gather.
Again, you should collect and provide information to your local public land manager and/or DWM to help facilitate a conviction. Get as much information as you can safely. More is better than not enough, but do not risk your own safety while getting the information.
To claim a reward through Colorado BHA’s Illegal Trail Reward Fund Program, send us an email ([email protected]) with “Illegal Trail Reward Fund” in the subject line. Please include the information listed above, in addition to details on:
- How your report helped lead to the conviction of the illegal OHV user.
- Name and contact information for the officer that made the conviction.
- Status/result of prosecution.
“Illegal trails on public lands are proliferating and represent a selfish, egregious affront to our shared public lands estate and the wildlife that depends on this habitat for survival,” added Colorado BHA Co-Chair David Lien. “Help us protect and perpetuate our wild public lands, waters and wildlife for future generations.” For additional information on the impacts of off-road recreation on wildlands and wildlife see the resource below.
-Liz Rose. “40% of Most Important Colorado Elk Habitat Is Affected by Trail Use.” Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP): 9/27/22.
-Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP). “Outdoor Recreation and Elk: A Colorado Case Study: Where do elk habitat and recreational trails overlap in Colorado, and why does it matter?” TRCP: 9/27/22.
-Kriss Hess. “CO BHA Publishes Memo on Illegal Trails.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 8/24/22.
-“Reward For Illegal Trail Construction Offered By Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/31/22.
-“More trails a slippery slope to less hunting.” Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel: 12/9/21.
-“Trails vs. Elk: ‘They’re Just Dying Off.’” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 12/3/21.
-“Colorado BHA Report: Impacts of Off-Road Recreation on Public Lands Habitat.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/21/18.
-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
-Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “Emblems of the West: Colorado Parks and Wildlife researchers have set out to evaluate how human recreation may be influencing Colorado’s elk populations.” Colorado Outdoors: 3/22/21.
-A set of related studies compiled by Keep Routt Wild.
-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.
-Jon Holst, Colorado Field Representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Proposed management plan prioritizes wildlife.” Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel: 11/7/21.
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).
 Wilderness Workshop (WW). “Bill H.R. 1349-Wheels in Wilderness?!: Congress considering opening up Wilderness Areas to mechanized travel.” WW: 12/6/17.
 Aaron Kindle. “Roadless Areas Critical to Fish and Game in Colorado.” High Country Angler: Summer 2011, p. 36.
 Alex Krebs, Southwest Colorado BHA Assistant Regional Director. “RE: Jackson Mountain Proposal.” Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 3/6/23.
 Dan Parkinson, Colorado BHA Board Member (Durango). “RE: Jackson Mountain Landscape Project #61809 Comments.” Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 3/2/23.
 Adrian Archuleta, Area Wildlife Manager-Area 15. “RE: Jackson Mountain Project.” Colorado Parks and Wildlife: 2/21/23.