Dogs, elk at heart of Capitol Creek ranch request

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times
Courtesy of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails A bull elk wanders past a motion-triggered camera at Sky Mountain Park early in the morning, late last month. More cameras are being installed to track the movements of elk and deer during the winter and spring. The open space is closed seasonally from Dec. 1 to May 15.

A ranch owner in the Capitol Creek area who has been violating a land-use condition against keeping dogs in an elk-calving area for years now wants Pitkin County commissioners to lift the property’s dog prohibition.

A ranch manager told commissioners Wednesday that dogs have been in the area for years, that the presence of humans is far more impactful to wildlife anyway and that his 10 Siberian huskies never get loose and rarely bark.

“There’s a ton of dogs up there,” said Mike Stark, ranch manager at the White Tip Ranch located near the headwaters of East Sopris Creek. “The influence on wildlife happened a long time ago.

“It’s the right thing to do.”

Kurtis Tesch, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, disagreed.

“Herds of deer and elk are plummeting in this valley,” Tesch said after Wednesday’s meeting. “Where can they find solitude without a hiker or a biker coming up on them?”

Tesch said he wrote Stark a citation for dogs harassing wildlife in November after witnessing two of his huskies chasing elk. Steve Smart, a hunting guide and resident of the area, told commissioners he’s seen Stark’s dogs chasing elk for years and that the dogs “are constantly barking.”

“If he’s allowed (to keep the dogs on the property), everybody else will be saying, ‘I want dogs, too,’” Smart said.

Commissioners took no action on the issue Wednesday because a notice published in the Aspen Times Weekly inadvertently said public comment about removing the dog prohibition was being taken until August instead of April. Board members voted to continue the issue until September because of the noticing mistake, and to allow members of the public to continue to submit comment until Aug. 25.

One commissioner, however, was not happy about continuing to allow the 10 dogs to be kenneled on the White Tip Ranch in violation of land-use conditions.

“I don’t want to wait two months,” Commissioner George Newman said. “If (the issue of dogs running loose) is brought to our attention again, I would look at removing those dogs.”

While the board stopped short of supporting such action, Newman’s comments served as a warning to Stark.

“So the applicant knows … there are consequences (for further reports of dog violations),” Newman said.

Commissioner Patti Clapper echoed that sentiment, saying, “We will be forced to take significant and serious action with further violations.”

The situation began Oct. 26, when a complaint was filed with the county’s Community Development department alleging that as many as 12 dogs were kept on the property, located on Capitol Creek Road. The department sent out a violation letter Nov. 3, while Tesch cited Stark on Nov. 8, according to a memo to commissioners from planner Tami Kochen.

In approving a single-family home on the 152-acre ranch in 1997, the board of commissioners specifically prohibited keeping dogs on the property, the memo states.

Stark told commissioners Wednesday that he didn’t know about the prohibition when he moved himself and his dogs to the ranch six years ago. He later learned of the prohibition by researching the property, he said.

White Tip Ranch hired a wildlife consultant who said that because of existing area roads, driveways, the Hay Park Trail and other human activities, lifting the dog prohibition would not “meaningfully reduce habitat effectiveness in the area,” according to Kochen’s memo.

Further, Stark said adjacent properties are allowed to have dogs, elk only use the area for calving for a month at most during the year and his dogs are always either in their kennels or on a leash. The October complaint, which Stark said may not have even happened, was the first one filed in six years, he said, which is a pretty good record.

“It’s not dogs,” Stark said. “It’s people.”

Clapper pointed out that adjacent landowners have dogs because they have owned the property longer than the land-use code has prohibited dogs in elk production areas.

“We can’t go back on property owners and change it,” she said, “… unless there’s another land-use application.”

Asked if he thinks Stark’s dogs are impacting elk, Tesch said. “One hundred percent.”

Finally, Pitkin County’s community development staff recommended against lifting the dog prohibition at White Tip Ranch.

Allowing dogs is inconsistent with previous development approvals, would change the basic character of the area, increases impacts to the surrounding neighborhood, impacts community welfare because it contradicts the community’s desire that development be compatible with the ecosystem and violates the land-use code, Kochen said.

The board will address the issue again Sept. 12.

Public comments about the issue can be sent to tami.

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