A gaping sinkhole on Colorado Highway 133, huge runoff, and there’s more to come; plenty of snow still up high in the Rocky Mountains

Floods, swollen rivers, road closures — Colorado’s spring runoff season is in full swing, and much of the snow in the state’s mountains hasn’t melted yet.

Colorado saw higher-than-average snowfall build up on the Western Slope this year, a boon for irrigators and other water users who rely on the Colorado River Basin which spans Colorado, tribal lands, six Western states, and parts of Mexico. But the snowmelt, with the help of recent weather, is leading to high runoff, and its adverse impacts are popping up around the state like a game of whack-a-mole.

Beyond monitoring for mudslides and rockfalls loosened by rain and high runoff, the Colorado Department of Transportation is also watching bridges and roads for possible closures. 

“I’m seeing higher flows in almost every single drainage that we have over here (in western Colorado) than what we’ve seen probably in at least four or five years, if not longer,” said Julie Constan, a CDOT regional director. “We had such a heavy snowpack across the entire western portion of the state, so that’s causing all of the creeks to definitely be running higher than what we’re used to seeing.”

On the Front Range and Eastern Plains, 10 days of rain in May helped with the state’s continuing recovery from drought over the past year. The amount of the state experiencing drought conditions has dropped from 93% a year ago to just 11% today.

CDOT is working to repair a gaping sinkhole that appeared on Colorado 133 near Paonia. Rushing spring runoff overwhelmed a culvert under the highway and caused enough erosion to collapse a section of the road that is roughly 20 to 30 feet wide, Constan said.

For the full story, visit The Colorado Sun here.

Shannon Mullane writes about Western water issues for The Colorado Suna reader-supported news organization dedicated to covering the people, places and policies that matter in Colorado. Read more, sign up for free newsletters and subscribe at coloradosun.com.

Celebration of life for Nick Courtens, who died in Glenwood Canyon paddling accident, set for Friday in Vail

A public celebration of life has been scheduled for Eagle County local Nick Courtens on Friday from noon to 2 p.m. at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail.

Courtens, 34, the garden’s curator of plant collections, died in a paddling accident in Glenwood Canyon on Sunday.

Garfield County Coroner Robert Glassmire confirmed Tuesday morning to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent that Courtens was pronounced dead at the scene between Shoshone and Grizzly Creek in Glenwood Canyon after he fell from a raft and drowned. 

Courtens was born on March 14, 1989, in New York, the oldest in a family of three children. He was connected to horticulture from a young age through his family’s farm, Roxbury Farm, in the Hudson Valley of New York. 

Courtens studied horticulture at the Longwood Gardens professional gardener program and came to Colorado for a summer internship at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in May of 2010. He remained on staff following the internship, ultimately becoming the curator. He also joined Ski and Snowboard Club Vail in 2012 as a coach. 

The Betty Ford Alpine Gardens described Courtens as a rising star in North American horticulture, and Ski and Snowboard Club Vail said he was a significant contributor to the freeski and snowboard community in Vail.

Those closest to Courtens knew him as a dependable friend who took the lead in helping to plan the celebrations of life for Bindu Pomery and Lily Connelly, who were both killed in backcountry snowboard and ski accidents in Vail. He was also deeply affected by the death of his friend Spencer Cooke, a Vail local who died in 2015.

Courtens was himself a talented backcountry skier and also enjoyed mountain biking, fly-fishing and whitewater rafting. He was a world traveler who ventured to Alaska for heli-skiing, Central America for sightseeing, and Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for mountain trekking in an effort to learn more about high-altitude horticulture.

In recent years, Courtens had branched out into public speaking and had been featured at several presentations for plant societies and botanic gardens. In April he visited Vancouver, Canada, where he studied plants and gardens and participated in speaking engagements.

Courtens is survived by his parents, Kelly Testa and Jean-Paul Courtens, brother Johannes Courtens, sister Annie Courtens, stepmother Jody Bolluyt, grandmothers Meg Cashen and Corrie Courtens-Soonius, as well as many aunts, uncles and cousins.

Friday’s celebration of life will take place on the lawn at the lower bench of the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens location, adjacent to the gardens.

Members of the public are welcome to attend and are encouraged to park in the Vail Village parking structure and bring blankets or lawn chairs.

Pictures of Courtens will be shared at the event, and those who have pictures they wish to share can upload them to dedicated folders which have been set up on Dropbox and Google Drive.

There will also be a visitation from 5-7 p.m. on Thursday at the Vail Interfaith Chapel.

Bee sweetness gathers at Silt’s Honey House from everywhere, Snowmass to California’s Central Valley

The honey comes from all over, Snowmass through the Roaring Fork, the high forest, California’s low Central Valley, and out to Meeker and Hayden.

And winds up in an unassuming shack off a country road in Silt near Exit 97 off I-70. That’s the Honey House, part of a hive of activity known as Colorado Mountain Honey.

The Honey House is where you’ll find eight varieties of honey to choose from, such as Trappers Lake fireweed and White River National Forest high altitude wildflower, Meeker to Hayden blend, dark amber wildflower, rabbitbrush honey and more.

A selection of goods at Honey Hut.| Derrick Maness / Courtesy Photo

The Honey House is an honor system operation. Take what you want, leave cash or Venmo (a digital wallet app) for your purchase. There are hundreds of gallons of honey to peruse and additional bee-based products such as raw pollen and bees wax. 

The honey comes from 3,000 hives spread across 100 locations statewide. 

One of the Colorado Mountain Honey beehives.| Derrick Maness / Courtesy Photo

“Every area is so unique from the altitudes, river basins, 100 feet in elevation makes a huge difference in taste, and then you have 1,000 feet difference, you get very different kinds of honey,” said owner Derrick Maness.

Maness is celebrating his one-year ownership of the Honey House. His business, Colorado Mountain Honey, purchased the operation from Paul Limbach, whose family created the sweet shack over 50 years ago. 

“I started working for Paul 27 years ago. I started when I was 14. His family has been in the area a while and have been beekeeping for the last 60 years,” said Maness.

“He’s really been my mentor. Paul’s dad was a beekeeper and Paul and his brother were his laborers. Paul went to CSU to become an entomologist. After graduating he returned to his family farm and continued the family business.”

Cowboy beekeeping and wrangling bees

Maness’ bees are everywhere. He’s a true wrangler. In summer, his hives are in De Beque to Snowmass, Meeker, Craig, Hayden and all the way up to Trappers Lake. 

“I spread bees across the White River National Forest,” he said. “I have hives from 5,000 to 10,000 feet in elevation and varieties of flowers that we have in the folds of the mountains is world class.”

However, as Maness pointed out, most beekeepers are really in the business for the pollination. The honey is literally the sweet icing on the cake. 

Honeybee loading for cross-state transport.| Derrick Maness / Courtesy Photo

“I take the bees to pollinate the almond orchards each year to Chowchilla, California,” he said. “It’s about an hour away from Yosemite. Spring is about a month and a half earlier there. It benefits our hives and the California orchards. I take them to a food source to get stronger and help the farmers, and in turn, the spring feast for my bees makes bigger yields when they return to their Colorado hives.”

Maness uses 18-wheelers to transport the bees between states.

Transporting honeybees to and from California.| Derrick Maness / Courtesy Photo

“My beehives are on pallets to allow me to move them with a specialized forklift. I wait until January when it’s cold. Bees stay in their beehives to keep the hive warm. We use this to move them with the least amount of possible stress,” said Maness.

A sampling.| Derrick Maness / Courtesy Photo

Bees come in different sizes and produce different amounts of honey. Maness’ hives are comprised of the European honeybee that came over in the 1600s.

“These bees are a non-native insect. This is an insect we brought over like the cow, horse, chicken. When we moved into the valley 100 years ago and starting irrigating and planting European crops, the native insects weren’t doing the job for pollination. This is where the beekeeper business came in,” said Maness. 

A honeybee beehive needs around a 100 pounds to 120 pounds of honey and pollen stores to have the food stores needed to make it through Colorado winters. 

“When talking about honey crop averages, it can range from 20 extra pounds a hive up to 100 extra pounds that we can take without compromising the hive’s honey stores,” he said.. 

From year to year, honey yields will vary in taste. Hives are impacted by late frosts, availability of wildflowers, rain. It’s never the same and like a “fine wine,” as he put it.

From Snowmass to downvalley, there is a specific honey from what those backyards.

“Plants are putting roots in soils, and that’s what’s amazing about bees, they live off nectar and sugars from plants. Each plant has a chemical makeup, and bees are in tune with that,” said Maness. “The pollen is literally vitamins, keeping all the minerals right from the backyard.”

Getting a bit of the honey

Maness and his wife, Melissa Adams-Maness, used to participate in the Glenwood Springs and Carbondale farmers markets and Strawberry Days and Mountain Fair, but two little bumble bees are keeping them busy at home.

“Once we had another child, we really had to slow down a bit and rely on word of mouth for the honey house,” said Maness. 

The honey house is open every day of the year from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

Aspen Times reporter Julie Bielenberg can be reached at jbielenberg@aspentimes.com

Colorado delegation to reintroduce CORE Act with a few changes in the Vail area

The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act gets closer to becoming law with each pass, Colorado lawmakers announced Wednesday that they are again introducing the bill in Congress.

The CORE Act would protect more than 420,000 acres of public land in Colorado, adding 71,000 acres of new wilderness to Colorado including expansions of the Eagles Nest and Holy Cross wilderness areas in Eagle County. The bill has passed the U.S. House of Representatives five times but has failed to pass the Senate.

The latest iteration has removed land designations including the Tenmile Recreation Management Area and the Camp Hale National Historic Landscape from the bill, as those areas received new protections when Camp Hale and the Tenmile Range became a national monument in October.

On Wednesday, lawmakers said the Camp Hale/Tenmile Range National Monument designation from President Joe Biden created a new reason to keep pushing for the CORE Act.

“I think the monument designation helps build momentum for the CORE Act,” Bennet said. “Those designations themselves have the support of the vast majority of the people in Colorado, 80 percent of people support the CORE Act throughout Colorado, and want the rest of it done as well.”

During the last Congress, the CORE Act received its first Senate committee vote when the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources offered a 10-10 split decision on the bill.

Bennet, on Wednesday, said the strides made during the last Congress showed progress in getting the CORE Act passed.

“Last Congress, we came closer than we ever have before to passing the bill,” Bennet said, saluting Sen. John Hickenlooper for helping the bill to receive a hearing in Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Bennet also acknowledged Rep. Joe Neguse for his help in seeing the bill passed time and time again in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Neguse, a Democrat who represents Eagle County in the U.S. House of Representatives, also expressed optimism in getting the bill passed again in 2023.

“The bill, as it’s passed through the House on previous occasions, has passed with Republican support,” Neguse said. “Different members of Congress, who caucus with the Republicans, from different parts of the country, who voted in favor of this legislation, I think have been convinced by the depth of local support.”

Neguse pointed to the local county commissioners on hand at the announcement on Wednesday, including Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry, as examples of the support the bill has received at the local level. Chandler-Henry said Eagle County has been working on the CORE Act for more than a decade.

“We’ve engaged diverse groups in our county from anglers and backcountry hikers to snowmobilers and bird watchers,” she said.

Hickenlooper said in addition to the Eagle County Board of Commissioners, the bill has received support from all Colorado counties affected by the bill.

“I think every county involved supports the parts of the bill within their boundaries,” Hickenlooper said.

The bill continues to include a provision for permanent withdrawal of 252,000 acres in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale from future oil and gas development, while protecting existing leaseholder rights. A pilot program to lease excess methane from coal mines in the area is also included. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are currently conducting an environmental review of an initial 20-year administrative withdrawal of the area from new leasing. The CORE Act seeks permanent withdrawal.

One area of the CORE Act that didn’t receive overwhelming local support was a proposed expansion of the Eagles Nest Wilderness, which was originally planned to be increased by 9,670 acres through the inclusion of two new areas known as the Proposed Freeman Creek Wilderness Addition and the Proposed Spraddle Creek Wilderness Addition.

The Proposed Spraddle Creek Wilderness Addition received pushback from the town of Vail, with Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak urging the Town Council to ask lawmakers to change the part of the CORE Act which expands wilderness into the Spraddle Creek area.

“There are some concerns with our future ability to implement wildfire mitigation programs and projects in wilderness areas,” Novak said in December of 2021.

While the town of Vail voiced its support the CORE Act in a Dec. 2021 letter to Bennet, the letter also expressed concern regarding the Eagles Nest Wilderness expansion around the Spraddle Creek area north of town.

“The Vail community values the ability to continue to address these wildfire concerns, in and around wilderness areas adjacent to our community, particularly in the Spraddle Creek area where new wilderness is being proposed through the CORE Act,” the letter read. “A smooth and quick process of approvals in the case of fire suppression needs, and proactive wildfire mitigation projects in this area will be critical to maintain the safety of the town’s residents, visitors and property, as well as the recreational opportunities, watershed health and water quality, wildlife habitat and natural resources.”

The new CORE Act bill text shows a reduction of the Eagles Nest Wilderness expansion, from 9,670 acres to 7,634 acres, which is a result of an alteration of the Proposed Spraddle Creek Wilderness Addition. The new bill text calls out a new designation, called the “Proposed Spraddle Creek Wildlife Conservation Area,” which is carved out of the former Proposed Spraddle Creek Wilderness Addition in the areas of the former wilderness addition nearest to Interstate 70.

The latest version of the CORE Act would create a new Spraddle Creek Wildlife Conservation Area in an alteration from a previous version of the bill, which aimed to expand the Eagles Nest Wilderness by 9,670 acres. The less restrictive wildlife conservation area shrinks the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area expansion by more than 2,000 acres and would allow the forest service greater flexibility for logging in the name of wildfire safety.| Courtesy image

A wildlife conservation area, unlike wilderness, would allow the U.S. Forest Service to conduct logging projects through the construction of temporary roads used for “carrying out a vegetation management project,” according to the bill text. Once those logging projects are complete, the Forest Service would then be allowed to sell harvested timber from the Proposed Spraddle Creek Wildlife Conservation Area if it is a byproduct of a vegetation management project conducted in the area.

The Secretary of Agriculture “may carry out any activity, in accordance with applicable laws (including regulations), that the Secretary determines to be necessary to manage wildland fire and treat hazardous fuels, insects, and diseases in the Wildlife Conservation Area, subject to such terms and conditions as the Secretary determines to be appropriate,” according to the new bill text.

The new bill also differs from its previous iterations in aiming to honor Sandy Treat Jr., a Vail local and World War II veteran who was a supporter of the CORE Act and died in 2019. The new bill calls for the creation of a new interpretive site to be located beside Highway 24 within the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument, designated as “The Sandy Treat Overlook.”

Neguse mentioned Treat in his comments, calling him a great man and a friend. Neguse quoted Treat, saying Treat once wrote “I grew up in an America that valued our wild lands, and this is a value I hope lives on long after I’m gone.”

Find more information about the CORE Act, including the latest bill text, by visiting bennet.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/coreact.

Post Independent reporter John Stroud contributed to this report.

Polis vetoes bipartisan bill that could have delayed wolf reintroduction on Colorado’s Western Slope

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday vetoed a bipartisan bill sponsored by Western Slope legislators that could have delayed the reintroduction of wolves, which is set to begin before the end of the year.

The prime sponsors of Senate Bill 256 are Sens. Perry Will and Dylan Roberts and Reps. Meghan Lukens and Matt Soper. Roberts, of Avon, and Lukens, of Steamboat Springs, are both Democrats who represent Eagle County at the state Capitol.

Roberts and Will, a Republican from New Castle, drafted the legislation to give ranchers on Colorado’s Western Slope the ability to lethally manage wolves. The bill would have prevented reintroduction until the federal government designated gray wolves as a “nonessential experimental population.”

Roberts, in a statement, said he was “deeply disappointed” with the governor’s veto.

“It is discouraging to see a bill that passed the legislature with such large bipartisan margins (29-6 in the Senate and 44-21 in the House) not become law,” he said. “Sen. Perry Will and I wrote, introduced, and passed SB23-256 to do one simple thing: ensure that a 10(j) rule is in place before wolves are reintroduced in Western Colorado. A 10(j) designation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows states to treat wolves as ‘experimental’ rather than ‘endangered,’ which offers the state and livestock owners greater flexibility in managing the species. Without a 10(j) designation, any farmer or rancher who interacts with a wolf (even for purposes of legitimate mitigation) could be charged with a federal felony and face prison time.”

Polis wrote in a letter that the bill was “unnecessary and undermines the voters’ intent” and said it could actually interfere with wolves being named as an experimental population.

“If signed into law, this bill impedes the coordination that has been underway for over two years by the US. Fish and Wildlife Service, (Colorado) Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Parks and Wildlife that includes a $1 million commitment from the state of Colorado to complete the 10(j) draft rule and draft environmental impacts statement,” the letter said. “The management of the reintroduction of gray wolves into Colorado is best left to the Parks and Wildlife Commission, as the voters explicitly mandated.” 

Proposition 114 was narrowly approved by voters in 2020, despite being unpopular among the state’s rural districts on the Western Slope where wolves would be reintroduced. The legislation required the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to create a plan to reintroduce gray wolves in the state.

After a process of more than two years, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission approved the final Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan on May 3, clearing the way for biologists to introduce wolves this winter.

The I-70 corridor between Glenwood Springs and Vail, along with the Highway 82 corridor from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, is likely to be the first area where wolves are introduced as CPW has concluded that large, contiguous areas of public lands with a high abundance of prey and low livestock densities will be the best sites for reintroduction.

CPW plans to release wolves during winter months, from November to March, as cold temperatures create less stress for the reintroduced wolves, and fall presents conflicts with hunting season.

Wolves will be released on state or private lands, not federal lands, because CPW does not have the staffing or financial resources to undertake the required National Environmental Policy Act analysis prior to any federal land management agency authorizing releases on federal lands, according to the plan approved Wednesday.

“Specific release locations will not be made public in this Plan in order to protect private landowner information and sensitive species locations, but targeted outreach will occur with potentially affected stakeholders prior to release,” according to the approved plan.

Roberts said the bipartisan bill “was not a delay tactic nor an attempt to alter the public’s wishes but, instead, a safeguard to ensure we introduce wolves responsibly.”

“As a legislator, I have rarely witnessed as broad grassroots support from a variety of communities and groups as we did with SB23-256,” he said. “The constituents that I, my co-sponsors, and the governor represent deserve leadership that hears and responds to their legitimate concerns. That is why this bill had the co-sponsorship of every legislator from Western Colorado, where the wolves will soon be introduced.”

Lukens, in a statement, said she was “extremely disappointed” by the veto.

“I have heard from ranchers and farmers consistently that it is absolutely imperative we have the 10(j) rule in place prior to state-orchestrated wolf reintroduction, and this bill was a direct request from Western Slope constituents who will be impacted most by wolf reintroduction,” she said. “This legislation would have provided the time necessary to ensure that the reintroduction of wolves into Colorado happens under a 10(j) rule, which is essential for the state to have co-management authority of the reintroduced population to protect our agricultural producers across the state.”

— Vail Daily reporter John LaConte contributed reporting

Pitkin County tees up ban on short-term rentals in rural, remote zones

“Mini-hotels” in rural Pitkin County might get a pre-emptive kibosh, as the Pitkin County commissioners have indicated interest in prohibiting short-term rentals in the county’s rural, remote district.

Commissioners last week passed on first reading an ordinance that would result in a blanket exclusion of properties that lie within the county’s rural remote zone from the licensing and application processes of the STR code. Meaning, no STRs in the farthest reaches of Pitkin County. 

County staff said they are only aware of three properties that have either applied for an STR permit or publicly listed their property within the district in question. And the county has not granted any STR permits or licenses to any property in the rural remote zone. 

The commissioners voted 3-1 to pass, agreeing that STRs in rural Pitkin County should be scarce. Patti Clapper wanted to consider applications on a case-by-case basis, while the others thought it best to prohibit outright. 

“As far as how we are addressing remote short-term rentals, I believe it is a fair process that they are required to come to the BOCC when they apply for a license for us to individually consider each application on its own merit. I continue to support that,” Clapper said. “And I think we need to be very clear … there’s a deadline that you have to have proven that you have used your property for short-term rentals (at some point from May 11, 2017, and May 11, 2022).”

Commissioner Greg Poschmann brought up the potential safety concerns of having visitors heading out to a rural property. 

“Say you’re out in the (rural remote zone) and someone who’s not familiar with four-wheel drive or snow conditions gets stuck. It may be up to the people living nearby if they’re already to get them out,” he said. “We have issues with safety response and emergency response, whether there’s a fire or an ambulance is needed. Rural remote is not the sort of place where you want to have the renter’s showing up. And then perhaps also the housekeepers and the chef and the florist and whoever else visits the place to service it, which really turns into a mini hotel.”

He also pointed out potential wildlife impacts of a relatively high traffic area in remote parts of the county. 

Commissioner Francie Jacober said she originally aligned with Clapper’s take on the ordinance, but after hearing from constituents that overwhelmingly supported keeping STRs out of rural Pitkin County, she adjusted her position.

And Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kelly said she fully supports the ordinance, and that she has done so since the county first waded into STR regulation. 

Pitkin County land use code defines the intent of rural remote zoning as:

“The RR (Rural/Remote) zone district is intended to: (i) conserve and protect the natural environment and its resources, while allowing for limited recreational uses and limited residential development, (ii) preserve the small scale, low-density backcountry character and lifestyle, (iii) retain undeveloped areas, and (iv) allow for the transfer of development rights to areas that are more appropriate for development. This district accommodates only small new structures and very limited types of development.”

The county first implemented STR regulation in June 2022. Assistant County Attorney Richard Neiley said the commissioners had asked around then for staff to bring an ordinance prohibiting STRs in the rural remote zone to the board for consideration.

Commissioner Steve Child recused himself, noting that he owns property within in the rural remote zone district. 

A second reading of the ordinance with public comment is scheduled for June 14. Neiley said that county staff would ensure public comment submitted through the county portal would be included in the next agenda packet.

Aspen Times reporter Josie Taris can be reached at jtaris@aspentimes.com

Wolf reintroduction plan includes Glenwood Springs, Vail, Aspen areas for likely releases

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission on Wednesday approved the final Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan, clearing the way for biologists to introduce wolves this winter.

The I-70 corridor between Glenwood Springs and Vail, along with the Highway 82 corridor from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, is likely to be the first area where wolves are introduced as CPW has concluded that large, contiguous areas of public lands with a high abundance of prey and low livestock densities will be the best sites for reintroduction.

CPW plans to release wolves during winter months, from November to March, as cold temperatures create less stress for the reintroduced wolves, and fall presents conflicts with hunting season.

Wolves will be released on state or private lands, not federal lands, because CPW does not have the staffing or financial resources to undertake the required National Environmental Policy Act analysis prior to any federal land management agency authorizing releases on federal lands, according to the plan approved Wednesday.

“Specific release locations will not be made public in this Plan in order to protect private landowner information and sensitive species locations, but targeted outreach will occur with potentially affected stakeholders prior to release,” according to the plan approved Wednesday.

10-15 wolves per year

CPW plans an initial release of 30-50 wolves over a 3-to-5-year timeframe, expressing a preference to release the animals at a pace of 10 to 15 wolves per year. After the initial release, active reintroduction will stop, and post-release monitoring will determine if the effort to establish a self-sustaining wolf population in Colorado has been successful.

“All released wolves will be monitored using satellite GPS collars, which will inform managers on survival and dispersal, as well as future release protocols,” according to the plan approved Wednesday.

The success of the reintroduction efforts will be determined by the wolves’ survival rate in the first 6 months after release, with a survival rate of less than 70% initiating a review of the program. The program will be deemed successful if released wolves demonstrate low mortality rates over the initial 2-3 years post-release, wolves remain in Colorado, reintroduced wolves successfully form pairs and reproduce, and if wolves then born in Colorado also survive and reproduce.

After the first-year releases occur in the areas between Vail, Glenwood Springs and Aspen, a second area along the Highway 50 corridor between Monarch Pass and Montrose could also see wintertime releases in later years.

“Subsequent release sites will be considered based on the efficacy of the initial release,” according to the plan approved Wednesday.

A map of the proposed reintroduction area. The darker green areas are determined to have more ecological suitability for reintroduced wolves.
Courtesy image/CPW

Thousands of comments

The intent of the wolf reintroduction effort is to create a self-sustaining population of wolves that will restore a natural balance on wild lands in the state.

Groups like the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance and the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund spoke out in favor of wolf reintroduction in 2020 when it was placed on the Colorado ballot and approved by voters later that year.

“The presence of wolves can change elk behavior, keeping them from grazing stream-side vegetation out in the open,” the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance wrote in an editorial. “By allowing aspen and willows to recover along those streambanks, songbirds return and beavers recolonize these areas, building dams, improving water storage and trout habitat. Wolves are not a panacea but restoring wolves to their natural habitat in Colorado undoubtedly will, in the long term, send positive ripples through our mountain ecosystems.”

“Wolf reintroduction is seen as one way to improve the health of elk and deer herds suffering from chronic wasting disease,” wrote the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund.

Wolf predation on livestock, however, was raised as a major concern for reintroduction.

“My constituents in central and Northwest Colorado will be directly impacted by the reintroduction of wolves into Colorado,” said Sen. Dylan Roberts, of Avon. “It is vital that … an adequate source of funding to compensate ranchers for their losses is guaranteed.”

As a result of those concerns, the CPW Commission supported revising the draft plan to raise the cap on livestock compensation, as well as guard and herding animal compensation, to $15,000 per animal.

Gov. Jared Polis said the revised plan is better due to the thousands of Coloradans who provided input.

“This science-based plan is the result of months of planning, convening stakeholder and expert working groups, and offering live and public comment opportunities, while factoring in the biological needs of the species, and creating the best possible chance for these amazing animals to be successfully restored to our state,” Polis said.

Avalanche Creek prescribed fire continues Wednesday

With favorable conditions returning Wednesday, firefighters are planning to burn an additional 300 acres at Avalanche Creek seven miles south of Carbondale following Monday’s completion of 313 acres, a U.S. Forest Service news release states. 

Firefighters are conducting the Avalanche Creek Prescribed Fire on White River National Forest lands to reduce dense vegetation and other fuels, which improves wildlife habitat by stimulating new vegetation growth and lowers the risk from large wildfires. 

“We saw excellent results from our efforts Monday, and we want to take advantage of tomorrow’s weather to complete additional acreage,” White River National Forest Fuels Program Manager John Markalunas said in the release. 

On Monday, firefighters used a combination of aerial ignition from a helicopter and ground ignition from hand crews. Tomorrow’s burn will be mostly ignited by hand crews with the possibility of assistance from an unmanned aircraft system. 

The Avalanche Creek Prescribed Fire is a coordinated effort funded in part by Pitkin County and the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District. 

Firefighters are closely monitoring conditions and will only ignite the fire if conditions are good for a safe, effective burn and good smoke dispersal to minimize smoke impacts to surrounding communities, officials said.

Smoke may be seen from Carbondale, Basalt and El Jebel. Smoke should dissipate during the day but may remain on the valley floors as temperatures drop. 

Firefighters also completed 725 acres at the Collins Creek Prescribed Fire north of Aspen on Sunday.

Ganja glut? With excess weed, growers seek interstate sales

TUMWATER, Wash. (AP) — The email went out to legal cannabis growers around Washington state. Another of their colleagues had gone under.

“Liquidation sale,” it said. Attached was a spreadsheet of items for sale: LED grow lights for $500 apiece. Rotary evaporators for hash oil, $10,000.

Across the Columbia River in Oregon, where the state’s top marijuana regulator recently warned of an “existential crisis” in the industry, it’s an open secret some licensed growers have funneled product to the out-of-state black market just to stay afloat.

California’s “Apple store of weed,” MedMen, is teetering with millions in unpaid bills, while the Canadian cannabis company Curaleaf has shuttered cultivation operations in California, Oregon and Colorado.

Along the West Coast, producers face what many call the failed economics of legal pot. There is vast supply, thanks to great growing conditions and a wealth of expertise, but any surplus remains trapped within each state’s borders due to the federal ban on marijuana. Prices have plunged and producers have struggled.

“I’m at rock bottom,” said Jeremy Moberg, who owns CannaSol Farms in Washington and, like many growers, complains that the state’s 37% cannabis tax leaves virtually no profit margin.

No one expects Congress to help out by legalizing the drug nationwide. Instead, some are pinning their hopes, however faint, on President Joe Biden’s administration approving marijuana trade among states that have regulated it.

That would allow the West Coast — with its favorable climate and cheap, clean hydropower for indoor growing — to supply the rest of the country, they argue.

In Senate testimony last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department will soon announce a new marijuana policy. Drug policy experts say they do not expect it to go as far as permitting interstate commerce.

Nevertheless, lawmakers in Washington last week approved a “trigger bill” — modeled after ones already passed in Oregon and California — that will allow the governor to enter into interstate cannabis agreements should the feds allow it.

Twenty-one states have now legalized the recreational use of cannabis by adults.

Marijuana plants are shown at a California Street Cannabis Company location in San Francisco on March 20, 2023. Along the West Coast, which has dominated U.S. marijuana production from long before legalization, producers are struggling with what many call the failed economics of legal pot…a challenge inherent in regulating a product that remains illegal under federal law. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Legal Marijuana-Surviving the Market

How they have set up their markets has implications for how they might fare if their growers and processors are allowed to sell pot in other states.

Washington and Colorado were the first states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. Many of the early regulations Washington adopted to keep the Justice Department at bay — including restrictions on the size of growing facilities and banning out-of-state investment — remain.

That has helped some smaller growers thrive. But it would hamstring those who hope to compete in an interstate marketplace alongside larger, more efficient producers from Oregon or California, who face fewer restrictions.

In Oregon, where sales began in 2015, large growers have achieved some economy of scale that could give them a leg up in a broader market — but in the meantime, the state’s oversupply is considered the nation’s worst.

“Cannabis in Oregon is like corn in Iowa,” said TJ Sheehy, an analyst for Oregon’s cannabis agency. “If you put a box around Iowa and said you can only grow corn in Iowa to sell to Iowans, you’d have exactly the same dynamic.”

The oversupply has been terrific for cannabis consumers.

When legalization started in Oregon in 2015, a pound of cannabis might have gone for $3,000 wholesale; today, it might be $100 to $150, said Isaac Foster, co-founder of Portland Cannabis Market, a wholesale distributor.

In Washington, which has some of the highest cannabis taxes in the country, the prices consumers pay are still cheaper than illicit weed. The state is raking in half a billion dollars a year in taxes.

But with such cheap prices, keeping the industry sustainable is a challenge.

With the spring planting season arriving, Moberg, of CannaSol Farms, says he already has three shipping containers of unsold weed, including 75% of what he produced last season.

East Fork Cultivars, one of Oregon’s first licensed growers, has thousands of pounds stashed, said co-founder Nathan Howard.

“We hope we can sell most of it to keep the lights on,” Howard said.

Oregon regulators know producers are suffering, but say they’ll be in a good position should the federal government allow interstate commerce.

Legal growers generally want to supply the legal market, rather than risk their businesses and freedom if they get caught selling out the back door. But oversupply and cheap wholesale prices have made it tough for some to survive on legal sales alone.

“They were either going to die or get creative,” said Tanner Mariani, head of sales for the Portland Cannabis Market. “And a lot of people chose to get creative and … found a way to get it from this market into the other side and then out of the state.”

Authorities have also contended with illegal farms operating under the guise of legality — notably in Oregon, where many have been financed by foreign cartels.

In California, about two-thirds of communities don’t allow legal marijuana activity, which helps the illicit market flourish.

A post-pandemic economy ushered in layoffs in the already-strained legal sector. A glut pushed wholesale prices to fire-sale levels. As in Oregon, it’s no secret some growers have fed the black market.

An analysis by cannabis investor Aaron Edelheit determined California’s legal market lost nearly one-quarter of its total growing area after the start of 2022 — “a wipeout,” he called it.

With so many California producers going out of business, wholesale prices have started to recover.

One of the first licensees was Erik Hultstrom, who began nurturing boutique buds in a steel-gated warehouse on the fringes of Los Angeles.

Five years later, he’s sold his license and is trying to contract with a large grower to sell bud under Hultstrom’s brand.

“I don’t know any companies that are really making money,” he said.

Still, not everyone is so concerned. Rob Sechrist, of the cannabis-only lender Pelorus Equity Group, described the market tumult as typical for an emerging industry.

“Every time somebody fails, market share goes to somebody else,” Sechrist said.

Indeed, cannabis distributor Nabis is opening a massive warehouse southeast of Fresno this month.

Some growers have found a happy medium.

Indoor producer Doc & Yeti Urban Farms, in Tumwater, Washington, has about 100 regular retail-store customers, said co-founder Joseph DuPuis. Brand loyalty has helped his team of 13 survive and profit.

“If you can withstand the storm, you have a chance to come out to calmer seas and survive in this market,” DuPuis said.

Drought task force to consider Colorado water conservation programs

Colorado legislators on Thursday introduced a bill that would create a drought task force with the aim of providing recommendations about how to implement water-conservation programs and avoid a compact call. 

A draft of Senate Bill 295 says the purpose of the task force is to provide recommendations for state legislation to develop programs that address drought “and interstate commitments related to the Colorado River and its tributaries through the implementation of demand reduction projects and the voluntary and compensated conservation of the waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries.”

District 8 State Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat, is a sponsor of the bill, along with other Western Slope legislators: District 5 Sen. Perry Will, who is a Republican; District 13 Rep. Julie McCluskie, the Democrat speaker of the house; and District 58 Rep. Marc Catlin, a Republican. 

The bill resurrects a yearslong, ongoing and controversial conversation about a potential “demand management” program, which would pay water users to cut back on a temporary and voluntary basis. 

“We absolutely want them to consider what a demand-management program would look like,” Roberts said. “If we can create a voluntary and temporary program that is well compensated, I think it will be much more successful and less damaging to Western Slope agriculture interests and Western Slope economies.”

The task force would have 15 representatives from a wide swath of the Colorado water world, including the Department of Natural Resources, the state engineer’s office, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, Front Range water providers, environmental groups, agricultural producers and industrial water users.

The task force would begin meeting no later than July 31 and may hold up to 12 meetings throughout the rest of the year. Members must submit a written report that includes recommendations and a summary of their work to the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee no later than Dec. 15. Roberts said the task force meetings will be open to the public.

Demand-management redux

The option for demand management was laid out in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan and established a special 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell, where the upper basin states could store water to protect against a compact call. If the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states (Nevada, Arizona and California), as required by the 1922 Colorado River Compact, it could trigger involuntary cutbacks in water use. 

With climate-change-fueled hotter temperatures robbing the upper basin of streamflows, the possibility of a compact call becomes more of a looming threat each year.

Aerial of Lake Powell at its lowest level since 1964. In 2022 experts say the Western “MegaDrought” is the worst in 1,200 years and predictions forecast Lake Powell dropping so low, the turbines below Glen Canyon Dam will not be able to function.

The state of Colorado spent over two years investigating the feasibility of a demand-management program, forming eight work groups that considered various aspects and challenges of a potential program. But the Colorado Water Conservation Board shelved the investigation last year in favor of exploring a drought resiliency toolkit. 

Demand management has many skeptics, especially in western Colorado where some worry that temporarily compensating irrigators to use less could be a slippery slope toward “buy and dry,” stripping communities of their water. 

In response to the federal government’s announcement in June that basin states needed to cut 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water use, the Upper Colorado River Commission unveiled its 5-Point Plan. One leg of that plan is implementing a program that is conceptually the same as demand management (paying water users to cut back), but with one important difference: it does not have a specially designated pool in Powell to store the water. Any water conserved under the System Conservation Program, which is being funded with $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act, just stays in the stream and can be picked up by the next water user.

Head of the CWCB and Colorado’s Commissioner to the UCRC Becky Mitchell had promised the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District they could have a say in approving projects within their boundaries. But with an announcement in March that applications would be considered solely on criteria developed by the UCRC, Mitchell walked back her commitment, effectively cutting the conservation districts out of the process. The UCRC is in the process of finalizing contracts with selected project applicants. 

Senate Bill 295 explicitly instructs the task force to include the CWCB and districts in its process, saying it must specify their respective roles and obligations in the development, implementation and operation of any conservation programs. 

The River District, based in Glenwood Springs, has not taken a formal position on supporting or opposing the creation of a demand-management program, but the organization has been a leader on the topic, producing reports and studies, such as one on the secondary economic impacts of a program on communities. River District leaders have said that if a demand-management program comes to pass, it must be done with careful guidelines to prevent harm to water users and to ensure that conservation doesn’t happen disproportionately in one geographic area. 

River District board members Wednesday voted unanimously to support Senate Bill 295. 

Zane Kessler, River District director of government relations, said the bill codifies a collaborative path forward.

“This is a broad-based and bipartisan effort with support from Speaker McCluskie and Representative Catlin, senators Roberts and Will. That’s about as balanced as it gets,” Kessler said in an email. “We believe it provides an important seat at the table for agricultural producers, West Slope communities, and the conservation districts charged with protecting the Colorado River’s water resources, and for engaging and working with other interests across the state to navigate a complex and rapidly evolving water future.”

The Colorado Farm Bureau supports the bill. Environmental groups are also supporting the bill, including Conservation Colorado and Western Resource Advocates, but they want to ensure that any water saved through conservation programs could also benefit the environment by boosting streams at certain times of year.

“We are very encouraged that a task force is being set up to address one of the most challenging issues we are facing as a state,” said Bart Miller, director of healthy rivers at WRA. “We are looking forward to being part of that discussion and to make sure as that’s happening we are keeping rivers, recreation, local economies and all the things that depend on flowing streams in mind.”

The nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both on the Colorado River, have plummeted to record-low levels, threatening the ability to make hydropower. In order to keep the system from crashing, the federal government has issued warnings to the seven basin states to cut their water use. Throughout the basin, there is a growing recognition that those cuts will come from agriculture, by far the largest water-use sector. 

Roberts said the current crisis on the river, coupled with an unprecedented amount of federal funding, brings new urgency to conservation discussions.

“We are now in a situation where the Bureau of Reclamation and the federal government are looking at the Colorado River and forcing the states to try to figure this out like we’ve never seen before,” he said. “There is significant federal funding available, and we want the task force to come up with recommendations on how we can maximize Colorado’s benefit from that federal funding to make a demand-management program incredibly well compensated and successful.”

Aspen Journalism

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