From elk to bighorn sheep, our valley’s wildlife population is crashing. Are trail users, residents, and visitors ready to make sacrifices to protect the iconic animals they profess to love?
Insomniacs count sheep. Craig Wescoatt counts elk. And lately the numbers have been keeping him up at night.
Driven by a love for wildlife that far exceeds the minimum requirements of his job as district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW)—a post he’s held since 1984—the 60-year-old Eagle resident hikes into the forest for a day or two every July to check up on the local herd. these summertime forays aren’t part of any official survey (CPW collects its data during wintertime helicopter flights) but out of an almost parental obligation he feels to monitor the welfare of a fragile population he’s been stewarding for nearly four decades.
Some years, he’s counted 80 or 90 calves for every 100 cows. That’s typical for a thriving herd. But during his most recent checkup, in an aspen meadow beside Brush Creek outside of Eagle, Wescoatt tallied just 32 calves per 100 cows. That’s well below the ratio required to sustain the population, and the decline has Wecoatt worried for the herd’s future.
Indeed, CPW data confirms that Vail Valley’s elk herds are diminishing. During the 1990s, Vail’s local herd (dubbed E-16 by CPW) numbered 12,000 to 13,000 animals. “We used to laugh be- cause no matter how many [hunting] tags we gave out, we couldn’t control it,” Wescoatt tells me one morning last August, when the E-16 count stood at 6,060, half of what it had been three decades earlier. In 2013, the agency established a population goal of 5,500 to 8,500 elk for E-16, so the most recent census might seem on target. The problem is, CPW has lost control of the steering wheel: Wildlife managers have all but eliminated hunting tags for E-16, but elk numbers continue to decline. Disease doesn’t appear to be the culprit, and neither does drought. Yet birth rates are plummeting, with fewer than 40 calves for every 100 cows being the norm for the last 10 years, an unsettling and unsustainable pattern.
“It’s crazy to think that in just 30 years, I saw the boom days of the elk, and the end of the elk. When you’re talking about trends in species, that’s a really short time frame,” he explains. “Does that make you depressed? It makes me depressed.”
And elk are but one of many struggling local species, says Wescoatt. Area mule deer, once 10,000 strong, now number 2,000. Just 40 bighorn sheep remain near Vail, down from 100 through the 1990s. Waterfowl have also declined.
The culprit, Wescoatt believes, is habitat loss and disturbance. Housing, and commercial and resort developments now occupy most of the lower-elevation lands along the Eagle River. Trails thread through every pocket of the surrounding backcountry, and traffic there has spiked in tandem with the valley’s booming population of recreation-loving humans—most of whom profess to love wildlife. In surveys conducted by Eagle County, residents rank wildlife as a top priority. But we also love kayaking, skiing, mountain-biking, dog-walking, hiking, camping, and grilling dinner on patios abutting open space. The coronavirus pandemic has only spiked our urge for outdoor recreation: during widespread closures of restaurants, workplaces, shops, and indoor fitness centers, area trailheads have seen a surge in traffic.
And the coronavirus slowdown hasn’t curbed plans for future growth; it may even accelerate growth as second-home owners and visitors from the Front Range and beyond, freed from the shackles of urban offices how that telecommuting is the norm, move to the mountains permanently. Eagle County anticipates that its population will increase from about 55,000 (in 2018) to 70,000 by 2035. And so far, the valley’s most controversial development proposals—the ultra-elite Berlaimont enclave north of Edwards and Vail Resorts’ Booth Heights East Vail employee housing project—seek to get green-lighted despite vehement local opposition. Both would rob wildlife of some of their last remaining land tracts, with bighorns depending on the East Vail parcel and elk finding critical winter sustenance on the sagebrush-covered hillsides flagged for Berlaimont’s 19 mansions.
It’s an unfortunate paradox that people flock to the Vail Valley for its nature and wildlife—yet of influx threatens to permanently displace the assets that attracted us in the first place. Critters’ declining numbers might behoove humans to change their ways. And across the valley, there are some indications that locals are adopting more wildlife-friendly habits. There’s a growing movement to adjust recreational and building development to support the valley’s remaining fauna. But what measures will be most effective? And are people truly willing to save this valley’s wild heart if that means reining in their own fun and the footprint they leave on the landscape?
Throughout the Vail Valley, it seems that everyone has stories about wildlife that they used to see but don’t anymore. Susie Kincade, a Wilderness Workshop activist who moved to Eagle when it was a farming community of 700 people, watched Eagle Ranch’s homes displace the 1,500 elk that once grazed those meadows. Still another longtime Eagle resident (and former wildlife officer), Bill Heicher, remembers that in 2000, he’d see some 700 elk when he paused at Eagle Ranch’s three-way stop sign, but this winter, the group had shrunk to 80.
Rick Spitzer, an Avon resident who’s been tracking and photographing local wildlife since 2001, has watched a variety of species—from waterfowl to elk—abandon many of their former haunts. He shows me his animal photos as we sit together in his hillside home, where the Sawatch Range fills the living room’s picture windows and aspens flutter beyond his deck. Some days, Spitzer doesn’t need to leave home to make his photos. The surrounding sagebrush habitat still offers critical winter sustenance for local elk and mule deer, and in 2014, he challenged himself to see just how many mule deer bucks he could capture on camera (that project resulted in 60 portraits of individual bucks that are distinguishable by their antlers).
Spitzer also frequents the ponds in Gypsum to photograph river otters and ducks. He’s spotted elk on the baseball field at Battle Mountain High School and in the meadow by Chambers Road and Interstate 70. Tip-offs from friends at Colorado Parks and Wildlife have helped him locate bighorn sheep and mountain lion. Eagles, bears, bobcats, and owls also fill his portfolio. The only significant Colorado species that the 72-year-old hasn’t yet photographed is the state’s native lynx. “But the populations of a lot of these things are declining, which is discouraging,” says Spitzer.
He no longer sees throngs of elk east of Chambers Road, nor at the high school. And suspecting that fewer mule deer were showing up between June Ridge and Buck Creek, where he’d conducted his 2014 quest, he repeated the experiment last winter—and spotted just seven bucks to photograph. Even the birds are becoming harder to find. Spitzer points to the riparian streams and ponds near Edwards’s water treatment plant. “They used to be filled with waterfowl, like wood ducks, cranes, mergansers,” he says. “But this year, there were only a handful of Canada geese.” The reason is obvious, says Spitzer: A bunch of new townhomes now sit on that stretch of the Eagle River, and a new put-in has become popular with rafters and kayakers. Where he once saw an occasional fly-fisher, he now finds 20 parked cars dispensing dog-walkers and recreators. “This whole stretch of river has been eliminated as a place that waterfowl will use,” he says. As for where they went, and where those 53 “missing ” mule deer bucks have gone, “It’s a good question,” Spitzer muses.
That same question loomed large at a community wildlife forum that the Town of Vail and the Vail Symposium hosted in March 2019. “Where did they go?” asked one attendee, after hearing that area elk populations declined by about 50 percent since 2000. “They’re dead,” replied panelist Bill Andree, who worked for CPW as Vail’s district wildlife manager from 1981 until his retirement in 2018.
Now, with no employer to filter his messaging, “The gloves are off, and I can say what I want,” Andree tells me when we met last August. “People want to know where the wildlife went, but they didn’t go anywhere,” he explains. They’re not like America’s homesteaders, who left the cities to settle the West’s vast lands. For wildlife, there are no more empty spaces. “They’ve died,” Andree says bluntly as he drives his ’95 Chevy pickup up Berry Creek’s bumpy dirt road to the proposed Berlaimont project. He’s offered to show me the private inholding within the White River National Forest where developers hope to build a gated community of 19 luxury homes—but only if the Forest Service agrees to their request to replace this rock-studded dirt lane with a paved roadway. To contour across these steep, sagebrush-covered mountainsides, Berlaimont’s driveway would require 30-foot-high road cuts extending for some 800 feet. “It would be a total barrier to deer and elk migration,” says Andree.
He parks the truck beside the rabbit-brush and wildflowers so we can stand on the road for an on-high view over the river valley and the pine-covered mountains rising up on its south side. “As far as wildlife goes, north of I-70 is in better shape, because you can see how much more development there’s been on the south side,” Andree explains. Behind us rises the swath of treeless scrub that might grow Berlaimont’s estates. Before us, the snowy summits of the Sawatch Range rise up behind green hills that are hemmed by subdivisions. Andree points out Bachelor Gulch, where the Ritz-Carlton hotel occupies land that had previously been flagged for elk habitat. And there’s Cordillera, where Andree’s colleague Bill Heicher helped developers integrate wildlife corridors designed to give deer and elk safe passage through the neighborhood. It was a nice compromise on paper, Andree says, but in practice, those homes ended up bumping deer and elk from critical winter habitat. And once houses get built, he adds, owners tend to oppose the prescribed burns that would restore food sources for area wildlife. Andree is just as unimpressed by Cordillera’s wildlife mitigation fund. Like most of the Vail Valley’s largest subdivisions, Cordillera established a trust fund to pay for regional wildlife habitat improvement projects that would offset the development’s negative impacts. But many of those projects are stymied by red tape, says Andree: Those funds can only be spent on actual mitigation work (like thinning brush and forests to regenerate food for elk) and not the administration costs incurred by the US Forest Service when it evaluates and approves such projects. What results is an impasse between the cash-starved Forest Service and the monied housing developments that can’t pay for approval processes.
As for the 49 deed-restricted and 12 market-rate units of housing that Vail Resorts plans to build on 23.3 acres it owns in East Vail (at press time, the Town of Vail was studying sites in and around Vail Village it might offer as an alternative for development), “I think it would be the death sentence for those bighorn sheep,” says Andree. “Vail Resorts could build worker housing near the base area, but it would rather use that land for big-dollar real estate development,” he says. The sheep, meanwhile, have no other winter habitat remaining to them.
Yet Andree doesn’t rank housing development as the greatest threat to area wildlife. Instead, he blames recreation. “There hasn’t been a new subdivision built here in more than 10 years, yet wildlife populations declined during that time,” he says. What has spiked is recreational traffic: Trail use has more than doubled since 2009. “You can come up here at 5 a.m. and see people running with headlamps, and at midnight there are mountain bikers practicing for 24-hour races,” Andree explains. “Effectively, habitat loss is now coming from recreation.”
That may be a hard reality for this outdoor sport-loving community to face, Andree admits. Trail enthusiasts championed the construction of the new Everkrisp Trail across Meadow Mountain, where a 1970s-era Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) committed the US Forest Service, Vail Associates, Eagle County, and Colorado Division of Wildlife to managing those lands for elk. But with trail users promising to stay off Everkrisp during the winter months and spring calving season, the US Forest Service gave Everkrisp the green light—to Andree’s chagrin.
“It doesn’t take much to disturb calving elk,” he explains. “We learned that in a landmark study we did with Bill Alldredge of CSU.” From 1996 to 2001, researchers ventured into calving zones on the Beaver Creek ski area and methodically disturbed nursing mothers and babies. Seven disturbances resulted in a 30 percent calf mortality rate, and 10 disturbances produced 100 percent mortality. Thus, Andree concludes that if even a handful of hikers, dog-walkers, and mountain bikers ignore seasonal trail closures and venture into calving areas, recruitment drops and the population shrinks.
Of course, Andree also uses trails. He likes to hike, and to ride horses during his annual rifle-hunting expeditions. And his house sits on prime winter habitat. “If you build a house that’s not in the middle of town, you have an impact,” he says. To compensate, he puts out extra hay for the deer and elk that graze at the edge of the aspens bordering his horse pasture. It’s like buying carbon offsets, but for wildlife conservation. “Is it enough to mitigate my impact? I’m not sure,” he admits. As I stand on the fulcrum between the valley’s past and its booming future, neither am I.
It’s a cloudless afternoon in June 2019, and Ellen Miller is standing at the Son of Middle Creek trailhead with a smile as warm as the sun. “Hi folks! How’s it going?” she chirps to a woman who’s approaching the trail entrance with her dog. A world-class mountaineer, Miller has climbed the “Everest trilogy,” including two faces on the world’s highest peak (becoming the first woman ever to do so) as well as Lhotse and Nuptse. These days, though, the 61-year-old prefers to run, hike, and mountain bike on local trails, where she also volunteers as a Trail Ambassador.
“Right now we have a seasonal trail closure here, but let me suggest a couple of places where you can take your dog,” she offers. Apparently grateful for the PSA, the woman returns to her car and drives away.
“Most people are very understanding,” Miller tells me. “They just don’t know that it’s a maternity ward up there. They see that the trail looks dry, so they figure they’re good to go.” That may explain why, in spring 2017, Forest Service game cameras on the North Trail documented more than 200 people violating the seasonal closure. The following spring, the Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance installed closure gates and signage on that trail and others. The group also worked with the White River National Forest to develop a volunteer brigade to engage trail users and educate them about closures that protect local wildlife. Miller was one of the first of those Trail Ambassadors. “I’m there to inform and educate people,” she explains. She tells them about the herds’ dwindling numbers, and how encounters with zippy cyclists and off-leash dogs can traumatize mothers and babies. “People say, ‘Oh! I never knew I had such an impact.’ They’re so receptive,” she adds.
The signed gates and outreach seem to be working. In spring 2018, cameras documented virtually no poachers on the closed North Trail. Coronavirus put the Ambassador program on hold this past spring, though new recruits continued to attend trainings via Zoom. Come summer, if Eagle County moves into the “Black Diamond Phase” of its planned reopening, volunteers may once again patrol trailheads and paths. “with an increase of people out on the trails during the pandemic it’s more important than ever to educate trail users on the importance of understanding and respecting the closures,” says Ernest Saeger, VVMTA’s executive director.
Beyond the Trail Ambassador program, local land managers are ramping up their public education initiatives to help trail users understand their impacts. CPW’s Craig Wescoatt has teamed with Phillip Kirkman, Eagle County’s Open Space Manager, to present panel discussions explaining wildlife’s needs and how residents and recreationists can adapt their behaviors to support those animals. Recommendations include staying off closed trails to let beleaguered wildlife feed on the relatively few parcels of winter habitat that remain (and let them raise their babies in peace). Residents might also embrace prescribed burns and other methods for enriching wildlife habitat.
And future trail development is likely to focus on infill, says Saeger. “The push right now is to create [trail] systems that are a little more dense, closer to the valley floor in areas that are already heavily used,” he notes, adding that the VVMTA has no new trail proposals currently in the works. But when it’s time to discuss expansions to the existing trail network—which Saeger sees as likely, given the valley’s projected population growth—the goal will be to avoid habitat fragmentation. “We’re getting on board with the idea of setting aside areas that we won’t touch, where we absolutely should not be recreating,” he says.
To identify those zones and collaborate on ways that the broader community can support wildlife, VVMTA is participating in the Community Wildlife Roundtable, a working group created by Eagle County’s Sustainable Communities office. The group’s key stakeholders (including representatives from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Vail Resorts, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers) are charged with rolling out a set of actions that the community can realistically achieve in 2021 and beyond. “We don’t see this group as being a growth management tool, per se,” says Adam Palmer, Eagle County’s Sustainable Communities Director. “But it could play a role in directing growth to help it be less impactful to wildlife,” he explains.
Already, the valley’s municipalities are paying more attention to wildlife. As it evaluates the worker housing proposal for East Vail, the town’s planning and environmental commission asked wildlife biologists to help identify measures that developers might implement to mitigate impacts on the site’s bighorn sheep.
“Fifteen to 20 years ago, wildlife wasn’t the first thing that was discussed when a development proposal was put forward,” admits Vail’s mayor, Dave Chapin. “Now, people are realizing there have been dramatic declines, particularly in the deer and elk herds in our area, and all of a sudden, wildlife has come to the forefront,” he says. “It’s opened people’s eyes to things they took for granted, and they’re saying ‘Wait a minute! We want wildlife to be here in 50 years, and at the rate we’re going, it won’t be.’” So in response to rising public concern, says Chapin, the town has nudged wildlife and environment to the top of the list of factors that it considers for development applications. “I’m glad that shift has happened,” he says. “We’re the ones that encroach on wildlife, so we need to be the ones to fix it.”
The looming question, however, is whether the community is willing to make real sacrifices to keep wildlife around. That’s what White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams wonders. He knows that the public eagerly awaits his decision on the overwhelmingly unpopular Berlaimont proposal (which prompted mass protests in spring 2019 and a petition in opposition that at press time had netted more than 4,200 signatures). Most Vail Valley residents want him to say no to those distant trophy-home buyers—but can residents also say no to themselves? “If we care about wildlife, there must be a collective giving,” Fitzwilliams says.
He notes that people don’t like smoky air, so there have been very few prescribed burns around the Eagle Valley, even though its ecosystem depends on fire for regeneration. And some locals remain reluctant to accept the trail closures and leash laws that are intended to give wildlife a break.
“There are tools we can use [to conserve wildlife],” he claims. “But are people willing?” He points to Jackson, Wyoming, his prior post. “Basically, all the land around town was off-limits to human use. But would we do that here? It would require real dedication,” he says.
In other words, it would mean pointing the finger inward—instead of aiming it at other user groups and interests. We can blame oil and gas companies, trophy homes, mountain bikers, irresponsible dog owners, hunters, rafters, race directors, ATV drivers, resort corporations, tourists, stand-up paddleboarders, and hikers, “And my answer is yes,” says Fitzwilliams. “It’s all of us.”
Want to support your local wildlife? Here’s how.
→ Become a Trail Ambassador. “A lot of people pay lip service to environmental issues, but this is my way of actually doing something about it,” says volunteer ambassador Ellen Miller. Learn more and find application info at vvmta.org.
→ Observe seasonal closures to support wildlife during sensitive winter feeding and spring birthing seasons. Mark these dates (and trails off-limits) on your calendar (and visit vvmta.org/ trail-closures for updates)
NOVEMBER 23-JUNE 20: Everkrisp, Whiskey Creek DECEMBER 1-JUNE 20: Eastern Hillside
DECEMBER 1-APRIL 15: Minturn Mini Mile, West Side Eagle River Preserve, East Eagle DECEMBER 15-APRIL 15: Knob Hill, East Eagle, West Avon Preserve (except Our Backyard and PB&J), Third Loop of Haymaker, Extra Credit, Eagle Ranch
JANUARY 16-APRIL 15: West Eagle access from Eagle
APRIL 15-JUNE 20: North Trail, Buffehr Creek, Son of Middle Creek
MAY 6-JUNE 30: Two Elk (from Minturn to the east end of the Vail Bike Path) MAY 6-JULY 1: Village to Village Trail, Elkhorn
MAY 15-JUNE 20: Paulie’s Plunge/Stone Creek