By Christine Peterson
Bill Andree always had a chance at an elk. It might come suddenly in thick spruce or a steep aspen grove, but it was a chance, and he killed his share. That was in the early 80s, when the elk herd roamed the hills and valleys around Vail, Colorado, in groups of a couple hundred.
By the early 2010s, he stopped hunting the area altogether. The longtime Eagle Valley biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife who retired in 2018 rarely saw any elk, and he didn’t feel it was responsible to hunt there when numbers were so low.
Other Vail hunters have similar anecdotes about how trails, houses, buildings and recreation increased at the same time as the herd kept shrinking.
And numbers back up those anecdotes.
CPW biologists who regularly counted more than 1,000 head of elk from the air now see only a few dozen. A unit that offered 490 cow licenses in 2010 went to only 30 in 2018 and almost none in 2019. Archery tags that were once over-the-counter were also eliminated.
“It’s not like these elk walked up and over another hill to another unit,” says Andree. “They just don’t exist anymore. They’re dead.”
Increased recreation, Andree says. Increased mountain biking and hiking and dog walking in the spring, summer and fall and increased skiing and fat biking and snowshoeing in the winter. Coupled with diminishing habitat, this could mean the end to the herd.
Elk hunter Frank Donofrio fears he’s watching the same series of events 40 miles southwest in the Roaring Fork Valley near Aspen. He moved to the area in the 60s largely because of the expansive wildlife herds and untouched country.
Like Andree, he’s watched the mountains he loves change. He watched millionaires move in, then billionaires replacing the millionaires as ski resorts expanded their terrain, retail and real estate empire. He witnessed elk habitat fade, eaten chunk by chunk as development and recreation expanded outward into every season of the year.
“It’s extremely difficult when you hear the old saying ‘money talks.’ I don’t know how you can reason with someone who is focused solely on growing, whether material growth or financial growth,” he says. “If nothing changes, there will be less hunting, and the game that’s left will perish because of the lack of habitat.”
Elk reproductive rates out of some herds in the Aspen area support Donofrio’s concern. A 2013 report from Colorado Parks and Wildlife spells it out:
“Outdoor recreation and other human disturbance, habitat loss and fragmentation due to land development and continued lack of large-scale habitat improvement projects have been the major issues for this elk herd.”
But like most wildlife issues, the impact of resorts and recreation on elk herds is not universal. Some herds seem to be able to handle human presence better than others. And while Colorado elk numbers remain strong overall, sportsmen and women, biologists and researchers are increasingly worried about the impact of recreation and associated development.
So are mountain resorts themselves inherently bad for elk? Is recreation itself? Not necessarily, say most Western biologists and wildlife managers. But year-round unrestricted growth – whether it’s condos and new roads or trails and ski lifts – will eventually take their toll on the West’s herds. There’s not a lot of value in vilifying resorts and recreation. A better objective is finding some kind of compromise through research, conversations and cooperation before it’s too late.
Gone and Back and Gone Again
Before trams and quad lifts freighted millions of skiers and mountain bikers up the slopes in winter and summer, the West’s mountains were largely quiet places.
Jackson Hole, a valley nestled between the Teton and Gros Ventre ranges, was home to a sleepy ranching town wholly undiscovered by a still-to-be-developed recreation industry.
But by the turn of the 20th century, elk faced a dire future.
The town of Jackson and the ranches that surround it had absorbed a swath of crucial winter range for thousands of migrating elk.
“Livestock competed with elk for natural grasses, and elk often raided ranchers’ haystacks, eating hay reserved for livestock,” according to a report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A lack of habitat combined with a few bad winters in the early 1900s left elk starving and dying in droves. That grim scene spurred Wyoming and national lawmakers to action. They soon set aside a chunk of land for elk and other wildlife, creating the National Elk Refuge.
Now expanded to 25,000 acres, the refuge feeds more than 2,000 tons of alfalfa pellets to up to 11,000 elk each winter. The controversial feedground – along with another 22 state-run feedgrounds – were Wyoming’s answer to a loss of habitat from development.
Wyoming’s neighbor to the south has a slightly different story to tell.
Elk in the Front Range of Colorado were nearly extirpated by the late 1800s, says Bill Andree.
“From 1870 to 1893 the major occupations in the Eagle Valley were mining, railroad and market hunting,” he says.
But by the early 1900s, officials at the Colorado Department of Fish and Game (precursor to CPW) realized the error. Between 1912 and 1928 they released elk imported from northwest Wyoming to places across the Colorado Rockies. Those elk succeeded, thriving on the food and cover that had been relatively untouched for years.
As elk re-established themselves, humans also began to settle in the area, discovering the potential value in deep snow and high mountains for a growing ski industry.
But in the 60s, no one could have predicted the size and associated development of some of the largest resorts like Aspen and Vail, Andree says.
Original plans showed small resorts catering to winter recreation. Yet as the West developed, and skiing, snowboarding and all associated winter recreation increased in popularity, resorts and their towns expanded.
While 55,000 people live year-round in Eagle County (home to Vail Mountain), the company’s website reports that well over a million people visit the resort each year, with that visitation largely split between winter and summer. Now condominiums and other resort-style accommodations have continued to spring up down the valley from Vail to Beaver Creek and clear to the town of Eagle along the I-70 corridor.
“As everybody knows and talks about, we fragmented the hell out of the habitat. We ran I-70 through the middle of it, and we’ve developed roads and houses in every place that is available,” Andree says.
“The thing we’ve always pushed is the cumulative impact. If you look at the impact of one home or two homes, it’s not a big deal. But when you get to 200 or 300, that’s a little different scale.”
Bigger than Elk
There is little doubt now that all this is having an impact on wildlife. The question is how much.
Courtney Larson, a conservation scientist at The Nature Conservancy in Lander, Wyoming, recently completed her graduate work at Colorado State University with two papers showing the cumulative effect of human recreation.
“We found about 70 percent of the studies that we looked at documented negative effects of recreation on wildlife,” she says. “But within that there’s a ton of variability.”
Published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice, her research analyzed about 275 papers from across the globe, focusing on dozens of species. What she found was that over 93 percent of peer reviewed articles showed recreation affected wildlife, and almost 60 percent of the time the effect was negative.
The biggest problem is sheer volume. The number of participants in outdoor recreation has increased in the U.S. by 7.5 percent between 2000 and 2009, and total visitor days increased by almost 33 percent.
And while biologists and hunters like Andree have seen the impact on elk, other species are hurting as much or more.
Recent work out of Jackson by Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Aly Courtemanch showed that backcountry skiers are causing bighorn sheep to leave their beds and move in the winter at a time when they have few calories to spare. The Teton herd is small and struggling, and skiers are contributing to the problem.
A 2003 study on Antelope Island – at 42 square miles the largest in Utah’s Great Salt Lake – reported that mule deer had a 96 percent chance of flushing from an area when recreationists passed by. Because of the number of trails and required berth, about 7 percent of the island was already considered unsuitable habitat for wildlife.
The study also detailed that of the 640 backcountry trail users surveyed on Antelope Island, about half of them felt recreation was not having an impact and most “tended to blame other user groups for stress to wildlife rather than holding themselves responsible.”
A Colorado State University study of the impact of trails on breeding bird communities near Boulder, Colorado, found that grasslands birds were less likely to nest near trails and nest predation increased near trails in both grasslands and forests.
While elk tend to handle human presence a bit better than big game species such as bighorn sheep and species of concern like wolverines and lynx, constant pressure 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in the spring, summer, fall and winter takes a toll, Andree says.
Ski areas once provided lush green forage for elk and other wildlife in the summer. The grasses and forbs are still there, but now they’re laced with streams of trail runners, mountain bikers and hikers. Ski runs that closed at 4 p.m. in the winter and didn’t open again until the next morning now offer moonlight ski tours, nighttime tubing under lights and evening dining at restaurants on tops of slopes.
But while the herd near Vail is struggling, and reproduction rates in the Aspen area are also concerning, some elk don’t seem terribly bothered by human presence.
“There’s a lot of individual variability. We look at these elk and think, ‘It’s an elk – they’re all the same,’” says Eric Bergman, wildlife research scientist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Some of the animals have learned there are people around and not really a threat, and in some instances they are [right]. We like to simplify things and make gross generalizations, but they don’t always fit.”
Some biologists wonder if elk that can deal with humans are simply a remnant of the larger herd that once existed on the landscape. They are the ones that evolved to tolerate human disturbance, and the ones that can’t are fading into history.
For Bill Alldredge, longtime professor and chair (now retired) of the wildlife department at Colorado State University, it’s about the sum of all interactions.
He published a paper in The Journal of Wildlife Management back in 2000 that showed when individual elk in the Vail elk herd were bothered 10 or more times during key parts of the year, reproduction essentially stopped.
Researchers can’t pinpoint why elk have such a negative reaction. It could be because cows, startled by humans or dogs, run away from their calves, requiring both mother and calf to expend critical energy reuniting and weakening them.
Without some kind of help, some kind of compromise, Andree fears the herd will simply blink out.
But researchers are also quick to point out that outdoor recreation is both a critical part of a healthy society and a growing part of a diversified Western economy.
In Colorado, the outdoor recreation and tourism economy amounts to $11.3 billion each year, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. A 2019 report in Montana showed the state’s annual outdoor economy – including recreation and tourism – totaled $2.3 billion. In Wyoming, outdoor recreation was $1.6 billion, and economists say that boosting the outdoor industry is one of the best ways to buffer against the state’s energy booms and busts.
At its core, outdoor recreation, expanding resorts and associated amenities are simply the newest iteration in an ever-developing West, says Quentin Kujala, wildlife bureau coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
It’s incumbent on all outdoors people, Kujala says, from hunters and hikers to mountain bikers and skiers, to figure out the best way to balance society’s need to go outdoors and its inevitable impact on wildlife.
“I am a hunter and have a mountain bike and do a lot of trail running,” Bergman says. He views compartmentalizing people and user groups into one category as needlessly antagonistic. “I’m optimistic we can figure this out because people do so many different activities. It’s healthy stuff and we want them out doing it, but we want them to do it smart.”
Conversations and Conservation
Despite the dire news of low reproducing herds and struggling numbers around Vail and Aspen, elk in the West are, in general, doing quite well. In the early 2000s, Colorado’s herd surged past 300,000, making the state home to almost one in every three elk in the U.S. Wildlife managers increased tags to help with agriculture damage. Two-thirds of Montana’s elk herds are currently over-objective, and many herds in Wyoming are as well. Both states offer generous tags and seasons for cow elk.
Time will tell if these populations can continue to flourish as habitat shrinks and recreation booms. Colorado biologists have recently seen troubling calf survival numbers in many elk herds in the southern half of the state. A CPW study is busy right now gathering GPS collar and other data to better understand the causes of this decline. Researchers say year-round recreation could well be a factor.
Wildlife managers, biologists, sportsmen’s groups and recreationists agree, though, that increasing public conversation, more research, and then more conversation is key.
People need to first understand their own impacts on elk and other wildlife in order to fully embrace mitigations like trail closures.
Take the Vail area.
In 2017, the Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance proposed building a new trail through more habitat of the imperiled elk herd.
Forest Service cameras on one trail in the area showed 189 people violating a closure in seven days in 2017. While those numbers are shocking, they came with the caveat that the area had no gates or explanatory signs.
The recreation community in the area acknowledges its impact on wildlife as well as other development, Ernest Saeger, executive director of the Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance told The Guardian. Ignoring signs isn’t always willful negligence. Many people simply aren’t aware of what their individual and cumulative behavior can mean for wildlife.
The group decided to form a trail ambassador program to post more informative signs at closures and even place volunteers at trailheads to explain to hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers why the trails are closed. It’s working, Saeger says.
In 2018, only 44 people violated the trail closure on the North Trail over the course of two months – a four-fold decrease over 2017. But zero, of course, would be better.
As groups like the Trails Alliance propose more trails to accommodate larger crowds, Saeger says they will continue to recognize the need for seasonal closures or simply building trails in areas already disturbed with other trails and outside of critical habitat. The ambassador program will expand and hopefully remain a fixture on the landscape.
Because no one – not skiers or mountain bikers, hikers or developers – want to see the elk herds gone.
Tucker Vest Burton, a senior public relations manager at Aspen Skiing Company which operates Aspen and Snowmass, agreed with Saeger’s sentiments.
“Wildlife is a huge part of our community,” Burton says, and that a world that contains both robust outdoor recreation and robust wildlife isn’t a pipe dream “as long as we can continue to keep it part of the conversation and make it a priority that everything is connected, and we’re all part of a larger ecosystem, and elk and animals are just as important to that ecosystem as humans are.”
But for biologists like Andree who spend their careers working with these herds, words like “compromise” and “mitigate” often simply mean the wildlife loses in the end.
If there is a solution, it’s some combination of more research to understand the impacts on recreation on various herds, discussion so all user groups understand the gravity of the situation and how they can help, and then legal enforcement of closures.
Communities are willing to put money to their wildlife-friendly sentiments, says Doug McWhirter, Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s wildlife coordinator in Jackson.
Because national forest, national parks and Bureau of Land Management land surround Jackson on all sides, real estate is finite and housing prices are so exorbitant that many of the people who work at the resort and in other businesses that cater to visitors have to live on the other side of Teton Pass in Idaho to find more affordable housing in Driggs and Victor. State highways 22 and 33 slice through key elk and mule deer migration corridors.
Teton County residents voted yes on a bill in November to reserve one penny of their sales tax proceeds to raise $10 million for wildlife highway crossing projects. It passed with almost 80 percent of voters in favor of the measure. Elk, along with moose and other critters, struggle with highways that dissect their native range. But as recreation-fueled traffic only increases, the threats are not just individual wildlife deaths from crashes but the potential loss of critical winter habitat and migrations.
“I think there is recognition of that impact,” says McWhirter. “There’s a tendency for the people that live in a community like this to think that it’s the tourists that are the impact. In my experience, we are all in this together, and we all share a little blame.”
Bergman, the Colorado biologist, recently started a six-year project looking at the impact of recreation on elk near Aspen and also elk near Steamboat Springs. His portion of the study will use trail cameras to look at numbers of elk in certain areas depending on human activity. A second researcher will use radio collars to give a different perspective.
Donofrio, the elk hunter from Roaring Fork Valley, yearns for the area he knew when he moved there over 50 years ago, before the exponential growth. He knows he’ll never see it again. In early October, he had a heart attack, and he did this interview from the hospital.
When he’s released, he will likely move in with his brother in the Denver suburbs. Even if he can return to his home near Aspen, elk herds may just not be the same. But like Doherty, he’s not giving up hope.
Perhaps with enough attention, he believes, and with enough compromise and mitigation and listening and talking, perhaps it could go back at least in part to what he knew all those years ago.
Christine Peterson has written about outdoor recreation and the environment for the past decade from her home in Wyoming. When she’s not chasing trout or trapping grizzly bears and bighorn sheep, she’s wandering the West’s public lands with her daughter, husband and Labrador.
Additional Notes: On Oct. 30, 2020, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a new executive order at an event celebrating the opening of Fisher’s Peak, Colorado’s newest state park. The order acknowledges the growing need to balance increasing recreational use in Colorado with the protection of important fish and wildlife habitat and aims to address this need through the establishment of state and regional working groups tasked with ensuring future recreational use is strategically planned through a public process to limit adverse impacts on fish and wildlife habitat.
The Colorado chapter of BHA has long recognized the need to put meaningful limits on new recreational development in the state to mitigate impacts on fish and wildlife habitat. Colorado BHA members consistently step up and speak up on behalf of wildlife, and we’re grateful that Gov. Jared Polis has provided a planning mechanism through which wildlife needs can be better accounted for. We look forward to engaging through this process in the future.
-Brien Webster, CO-WY Coordinator and Programs Manager
This article first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA to get 4 issues a year right in your mailbox.