New Seasonal Closure Gates Installed at Buffalo Pass

The population in Colorado is increasing, and with this, pressures on our public lands. Per the Outdoor Industry Association, Americans have flocked to outdoor recreation amid COVID restrictions. The activities that experienced the most considerable growth were running, cycling, and hiking. This year’s demand provides a sneak peek into the impacts an increased population will place on our wild places and shows the importance of implementing systems to ensure our public areas are protected and thriving for the long-term.

Volunteers from Routt County Riders, Keep Routt Wild, and USFS and CPW staff gather together before installing wildlife seasonal closure gates.

One of the busiest Steamboat Springs area parking lots this summer was at Dry Lake Trailhead on Buffalo Pass Road. From this trailhead, families with young kids enjoy Fiddlehead trail; hikers enjoy Soda Ditch and Panorama trail; and trail runners and mountain bikers access Flash of Gold trail and the newly completed Spring Roll trail.

This area is also the habitat of local wildlife.

The Buffalo Pass area is a critical elk production area. The area accessed from Dry Lake has two trails that intersect a mapped Colorado Parks and Wildlife elk production area (See Map of Elk Production Closure). The Buffalo Pass Trails Environmental Assessment determined this area would be closed to all recreation from May 15 – June 15. Since the creation of the new trails, the United States Forest Service (USFS) states there has been good compliance with the closure. To further increase compliance, the USFS applied for a grant through the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Fund (WHILD) held at the Yampa Valley Community Foundation (YVCF) for the purchase and installation of six gates at the following locations:

  • Top and bottom of the Great White Buffalo Trail
  • Top and bottom of the BTR trail
  • Intersection of Spring Creek and Flash of Gold and intersection of BTR connector trail and Flash of Gold

Volunteers and USFS staff install a wildlife seasonal closure gate on BTR trail.

The project received partial funding from the WHILD fund. The remaining balance was secured equally by Keep Routt Wild (KRW) and Routt County Riders (RCR). On October 20, a team of volunteers from both organizations in partnership with USFS and Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff completed the final installation of the gates.

Finding a balance between outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat conservation is no easy task. “It’s something that we discussed since the beginning when these new trails were put in,” explained Laraine Martin, executive director of RCR. “We want to be on board with educating the public on wildlife closures and making it very obvious that we want to do the right things for our wildlife populations.”

The offspring of a cow elk that wandered over 250 miles from Maybell to give birth near the Continental Divide. The calf was born on June 13th. This photo is courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife – Steamboat Springs

For the closure to be a success, it needs 100% compliance. “People don’t realize they are making an impact because they don’t see the impact. They don’t see the elk calves,” Larry Desjardin, KRW Board President, explained. “Once we teach people that 5% of disturbances lead to mortality of that calf, then people get it. No one wants to damage wildlife. That’s the good thing about education.” Gates are proven to be an effective method to educate people about wildlife closures.

The first two weeks of a calf’s life are critical for the survival of the animal. New calves are most successful if they can hide for two weeks after birth. A study performed in Eagle County published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2000 showed disturbing a cow elk eight times during calving season (disturbing is defined as making the animal move) led to approximately 40% fewer surviving calves and 5% mortality per disturbance. An increase in mortality could be due to predation that may occur when the calf follows the disturbed mother out of the calf’s hiding place. “Since most calves are born between May 15 and June 15, the hiding period extends the preferred closure date to June 30,” stated Larry Desjardin.

Cedar Beauregard, with KRW and a granting committee member on the WHILD fund, had mixed emotions as he volunteered to install the gates. “This (the installation of the gates) is an important project for the community because it shows care for wildlife,” explained Beauregard. However, he went on to explain, “Trails should not be built in places we need to put gates, and the enforcement of closures should be priced into new trails.”

The gates are not the only solution. There are places to build new trails that may not affect local wildlife. Routt County Riders states on their website the best way to protect wildlife from human disturbance is to properly plan trails with wildlife in mind in order to concentrate and guide human activity away from sensitive habitat. They have provided the “Rules of Thumb for Protecting Wildlife During Trail Development” on their webpage.

This project is the culmination of a master trail planning effort, a lot of interest in the community for additional recreational opportunities, and a balance with the conservation side of things, including wildlife, explained Brendan Kelly with the USFS. “It is great to have all the various entities involved (to install the gates). This project is a wrap to the Buffalo Pass trail system.”

To learn more about and to support the WHILD fund, visit www.yvcf.org/WHILD

 

Routt County Riders Volunteers are all smiles after completing the installation of a wildlife seasonal closure gate on Buffalo Pass.