CPW speaking up for big game animals—and using data to guide decisions

Challenges to their well-being are people, climate and vegetation 

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

“If we want to continue to protect and conserve wildlife habitat in the Upper Gunnison Basin, we will have to make decisions that support it,” offered Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) manager Brandon Diamond as he introduced a new direction for CPW to Gunnison County commissioners on Tuesday. That new direction is to use some recently completed big game spatial data as a driving force in its conversations with other public lands managers and regulating bodies. The idea is to encourage better awareness of how human and climate related factors are negatively affecting vital migration corridors and how we can better protect them. It might even include some wildlife highway crossings if funding can be found.

CPW terrestrial wildlife biologist Kevin Blecha presented the data collected as part of a project studying the distribution of elk across the Upper Gunnison Basin. The data was collected beginning in October of 2020 using GPS collars on random specimens among elk populations, and Blecha said they were able to trace the migrations of 10% of the elk population statewide in this way. Blecha observed that elk cover serious ground, even in the winter. In high snow years, some elk have been known to travel over 72 miles each way in mid-winter from the Gothic area to Saguache Creek drainage in search of potentially shallower snowpack.

Blecha shared a time lapse video that demonstrated a pulsing seasonal distribution with a more compact winter range and a more widespread summer range.

“There’s really nowhere they don’t go on the landscape,” he said.

Which is where the human factor comes in.

Blecha traced the appeal of large game animals to hunters and to conservationists and said despite the high value Gunnison County residents and visitors place on having the wild ungulates here, their presence on the Gunnison Basin is in jeopardy due to several critical factors: long-term drought, cheatgrass invasion, lack of wildfire/forest regeneration cycles, new sprawling residential development, increasing recreational pressures and increasing highway traffic. 

Regarding drought, Blecha reviewed local projects for wet meadow and riparian zone restoration and resilience, “but they are time and resource intensive, and cover pretty small areas.”

Cheatgrass is replacing more nutritious native foliage and decreasing wildfire intervals in areas where the cheatgrass then spreads further and faster. 

However, lack of wildfire and subsequent forest regeneration is also a challenge. “Many people worry that wildlife just perishes in wildfires, but believe it or not wildfire is beneficial to them and they are well adapted at responding to it,” said Blecha. “It actually improves their habitats across the forest.” 

The issues related to new sprawling residential development are that more and more homes are being built in remote and low-density areas but have a large footprint on the disturbed areas around them. Blecha described an example in the South Sixmile Lane area southwest of Gunnison where large, more spread-out homes on multiple acres have been used seasonally in summer and caused little interference with elk. “Then a couple years ago one resident decided to stay and live year-round. Plowing began on County Road 42 and what we’re dealing with now is 12 square miles of disturbed habitat.”

Increased recreational pressure comes as motorized recreation brings more people into more remote areas. “People getting further out in larger numbers has an impact,” said Blecha. 

Last, highway traffic volumes are increasing, with a 42% increase on Highway 135 and 30% increase on Highway 50 since 2015. Blecha conceded that some traffic increases might be skewed by the Little Blue Creek Canyon project on Highway 50 diverting traffic through Gunnison. “But if we are concerned about elk, we have to acknowledge that they need to get across our highways.”

Blecha said CPW has identified four general locations where wildlife crossings could be placed to support elk and other big game crossings. He reviewed a case on Highway 9 north of Silverthorne where wildlife crossings were funded privately by a rancher and other private sources, and they reduced big game fatalities by over 90%. He estimated such structures would pay for themselves in 50 years (based on costs to vehicle damage and responses) and could be expected to last 75 years. 

“That would be one of the most important things we could do to ensure their viability,” he said. But he acknowledged that it would involve Colorado Department of Transportation and a source of new funding, preferably private.

Diamond said he would like to begin by elevating the highway and Gunnison County on the prioritization list. “If funding or private donors come to us, we should be ready to act… and be considering it with any new development.” He said he believes more federal funding is coming and other funding is possible. 

“There is a lot of wealth in this valley, and a lot of conservation values,” pointed out Diamond.

“We’re just putting it on everyone’s radar,” agreed Blecha. He said CPW is interested in speaking up for big game, “And we will be using this spatial data in our comment letters” on regional land management plans. 

But he acknowledged that some will not like it. “We have it easy, in many ways,” said Blecha, compared with commissioners and other governing bodies that must factor in development, recreation, economics and more than wildlife.

“We are standing on much better information than we ever have before,” he said. The data is very solid in the areas most highly used by big game, he said and the continuous-based “heat maps” are superior for conservation prioritization because they show that “you can’t fit wildlife in a box; they don’t understand those boundaries.”

Commissioners and county staff agreed that the data is helpful in working toward regulatory balance around development, recreation and other issues.

Assistant county manager for community and economic development Cathie Pagano commented that her department and intergovernmental organizations are tasked with “bringing all these threads together.”

County commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck said it also harkens back to the code of the West. “Someone coming in who has purchased a large piece of property can’t just expect to make the area conform to their wishes—they will also need to conform with community values,” he said. 

“The conflict really isn’t that people can do what they want on their private land. It’s that nine to 12 square miles in and out of it that is a public land and how it is impacted that is our concern,” said Blecha.

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