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 offering a $500 reward for reports or information leading to a conviction of those responsible for illegal trail construction on public lands.
Although BHA has offered 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 extend this reward to illegal mechanized and motorized trail construction on public lands.
“For years we’ve been hearing 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. This is one small step we can take to try and help moderate and hopefully deter additional illegal trail construction activity.”
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 the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (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.”
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 new trails. In addition, most motorized routes are open to bikers. In fact, today some 98 percent of the lower 48 states is within one mile of a motorized route. Ninety-two 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?
“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.”
Some mountain bikers in the Durango area (and elsewhere) are building illegal trails, and it’s causing an issue for land managers, wildlife officials and trail advocates that 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.”
Coming To A Head
A January 2022 Colorado Springs Gazette story (“Rouge trails ‘coming to a head’ in Colorado Springs outdoors,” by Seth Boster) explained that, “The perpetual issue of unauthorized trails, or ‘rogue’ trails, has risen to new levels … with little to no enforcement against anyone who might blaze a desired path.”
Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates Executive Director Cory Sutela said the issue has become “more pronounced” amid increasing ridership and enhanced capabilities of mountain bikes. Today’s bikes “can do a huge amount of damage in a short amount of time on highly erosive soils,” Sutela said. “It’s not like it was 20 years ago, where there’s not that many people doing it and the bikes are really clunky and heavy.”
Rogue trails “can create significant management issues,” acting Pikes Peak District Ranger Jennifer DeWoody said. Such trails “can destroy wildlife habitats, disrupt wildlife migration corridors … spread noxious and invasive weeds, cause soil loss, impact water quality and create safety and liability concerns.”
“I had to leave one area due to ATVs. Then the great new area I found was recently designated semi-roadless instead of roadless, meaning mountain biking was allowed. The elk left,” said Durango area hunter Bryan Peterson. “I hunted an area for years that always held elk. When they expanded the trails the elk vanished,” added Johnny Rothones.
“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.” DeWoody reiterated the environmental mission of the Forest Service. “Part of ensuring this balance and sustainability is to manage the land not only for recreation, but for plants, wildlife and water quality as well,” she said.
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 public lands habitat for their 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.
- “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.
- Jeremy Dertien, Courtney Larson and Sarah Reed. “Don’t hike so close to me: How the presence of humans can disturb wildlife up to half a mile away.” The Conversation: 7/14/21.
- Christine Peterson. “Resort Town Blues.” Backcountry Journal: Winter 2021, p. 44.
- Ryan Stuart. “Study: Mountain Bikes Disturb Wildlife More Than Previously Thought.” Men’s Journal: December 2020.
- Jim Mimiaga. “Local elk herds decline; Colorado Parks and Wildlife seeks solution.” The Journal: 2/5/20.
- Scott Condon. “Elk herd population plummets in Aspen, Vail areas as human use grows.” The Aspen Times: 2/1/20.
- Christine Peterson. “Hiking trails are a path to destruction for Colorado elk: Recreationalists in Vail are having a devastating impact on the local herd.” High Country News: 8/27/19.
- Christine Peterson. “Americans' love of hiking has driven elk to the brink, scientists say.” The Guardian: 8/25/19.
- Patrick Durkin. “Silent Fight: ‘Non-Consumptive Users’ Disturb Wildlife.” American Hunter: July 2019.
- Judith Kohler. “Elk vs. trails: Proposal in Steamboat Springs highlights conflicts over public lands (Mountain bikers want to ride in Routt National Forest, but others are concerned about the impacts on wildlife).” The Denver Post: 2/24/19.
- Jonathan Romeo. “Where have all the elk gone? In Southwest Colorado, herds show distressing signs.” The Durango Herald: 11/15/18.
- Matt Kroschel. “‘They’re Just Dying Off’: Elk Herds Disappearing In Eagle Valley.” CBS4-Denver: 6/22/18.
- Pam Boyd. “Where has all the wildlife gone: CPW officials cite 50 percent drop in Eagle Valley’s elk population.” Vail Daily: 6/16/18.
- Jonathan Romeo. “Illegal trail building a vexing problem for public land managers: Mountain bike paths built in recent years.” The Durango Herald: 3/20/18.
- Editorial. “Do we truly value wildlife? Then it’s time to acknowledge that it’s up to everyone to help.” Vail Daily: 2/27/18.
 Wilderness Workshop (WW). “Bill H.R. 1349-Wheels in Wilderness?!: Congress considering opening up Wilderness Areas to mechanized travel.” WW: 12/6/17.
 Montana Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (MT BHA). “MT BHA Testifies for RMF!” MT BHA: 4/26/12.
 Aaron Kindle. “Roadless Areas Critical to Fish and Game in Colorado.” High Country Angler: Summer 2011, p. 36.