Crystal trail debate could lead to meaningful effort to save bighorn sheep herd outside Redstone | PostIndependent.com

Crystal trail debate could lead to meaningful effort to save bighorn sheep herd outside Redstone

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
A wildlife camera captured this photo of bighorn sheep on national forest lands downstream from Filoha Meadows in February. Pitkin County wants to work with partners on a bighorn resiliency project.
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails/courtesy photo

A silver lining has emerged from the bickering over a proposed pedestrian and cycling trail in the Crystal River Valley.

The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program has committed funding for several environmental initiatives ranging from improving the resiliency of an imperiled bighorn sheep herd to restoring altered stream banks on the Crystal River.

“Through this multi-jurisdictional and multi-faceted process, we have come up with an incredible amount of biodiversity projects that would have never really come to light if not for this trail-planning effort,” Gary Tennenbaum, executive director of the open space program, said at a public meeting Dec. 19.

One of the highest profile projects will be working with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the White River National Forest “to prevent the disappearance of the Crystal Valley’s bighorn sheep herd, restore it to health and restore its population to healthy numbers,” according to the trail plan.

That will likely require enhancing habitat on public lands, better enforcing existing seasonal closures and more aggressive weed management.

The Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail Plan also said a greater effort must be made with the leaseholder of grazing rights for domestic sheep on national forest. There is concern that domestic sheep have spread bacterial pneumonia among the bighorn herd.

A 2008 study at state wildlife officials placed the herd’s population at about 100 adults. Today it is feared the number is half of that.

Pitkin County Open Space has pledged getting the resiliency effort underway in 2019. The funding will depend on how many partners sign on to the effort.

Another major thrust will be improving the Crystal River’s riparian areas and in-stream habitats, according to the plan. Open space will team with the Healthy Rivers and Streams program and the nonprofit Roaring Fork Conservancy to plan projects. One problem has been all the riprap that’s been applied to the stream banks during construction of the old railroad in the valley as well as Highway 133 and private routes.

Tennenbaum said river improvements would be pursued regardless of the trail’s fate.

“If there’s a trail or no trail, that doesn’t matter,” he said.

Weed management is a project that is less sexy but just as vital. The plan identified the spread of cheat grass as a major problem for quality wildlife habitat because its crowds out natural vegetation.

The portion of the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail that’s in Pitkin County has been engulfed in controversy. Opponents of the trail have criticized Pitkin County for advancing the plan despite potential affects on wildlife. They want the county to stick to an alignment next to Highway 133.

Trail supporters have credited Pitkin County with making an extra effort to study the trail’s interaction with wildlife and adjusting appropriately.

The county commissioners approved the trail plan 3-2 last week. That authorizes the county staff to request initiation of U.S. Forest Service review of the 7-mile stretch from Redstone to the summit of McClure Pass. A 12-mile stretch north of Redstone will undergo further county review to determine a proposed alignment.

While some environmentalists have criticized the trail, Tennenbaum said the county’s process is being studied as a model by the state government. The administration of governor-elect Jared Polis is looking at Pitkin County’s biological study as an updated model of how local jurisdictions should examine wildlife issues, according to Tennenbaum.

The idea is to collaborate “so it’s not wildlife versus trails,” he said.

scondon@aspentimes.com