RFTA considers dog ban, winter closure on new trail section
A wildlife biologist advised the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority this week to ban dogs and place a seasonal closure on a section of the Rio Grande Trail that will open in October.RFTA hired Jonathon Lowsky of Colorado Wildlife Science LLC this summer to prepare a wildlife management plan for a controversial stretch of trail between Rock Bottom Ranch and Catherine Bridge in the midvalley.Some environmentalists have raised concerns that the trail could have too great of an impact on wildlife, especially in wetlands along the Roaring Fork River on the Rock Bottom Ranch property.RFTA is building a four-mile stretch of trail from Hooks Lane, in the Emma area, to Catherine Bridge. It hired Lowsky to look at about 234 miles of that trail, from Rock Bottom Ranch to the bridge.Lowsky wasn’t hired to tell RFTA whether to build the trail, according to Mike Hermes, director of trails and lands for the agency. That decision was already made and construction is under way, Hermes said. RFTA asked Lowsky to determine how the trail could be managed in the most environmentally-friendly way.”If you do it right, you can minimize the impacts,” Hermes said.Lowsky’s recommendations were similar to those the Colorado Division of Wildlife made in February. Both the consultant and the state agency emphasized the need for a dog ban, a closure during the heart of winter, and enforcement of the rules by RFTA.RFTA’s board of directors must still review and vote on the recommendations. Lowsky’s report will be released to the public later this year and comments will be collected before the board votes, according to Hermes.Lowsky said he has nothing against dogs, but the ban is necessary to reduce the “zone of influence” caused by trail use. When dogs roam off-leash it makes the terrain alongside the trail “potentially unsuitable habitat” for mule deer and small mammals, according to his report. He cited two studies to back his claim.He advised closing about one mile of the trail to all uses from Nov. 15 to March 15: “This closure will ensure the integrity of the mule deer and elk winter range and winter concentration area at and around Rock Bottom Ranch,” his report said.The state wildlife division recommended a seasonal closure from Dec. 1 to May 1. The state agency went with the later date to prevent disturbance of great blue heron egg laying in March and April.”During this time great blue herons are very susceptible to disturbance and flush easily,” said the wildlife division letter to RFTA. “Repeated disturbance may cause discontinued use of the nest site or abandonment of young herons before they fledge.”Lowsky said he went with the early date to end the season closure because he felt the trail is far enough from heron nests and screened well enough to avoid disruption.He said he stressed to RFTA officials that wildlife impacts will have to be regularly monitored and management changed, if need be, after trail use begins.Lowsky said the regulations “would be worthless without enforcement.” The wildlife division concurred. For example, Lowsky suggested closing the trail with locked gates during the winter but he said patrols by trail rangers will still be necessary.RFTA will have three staffers on the trails crew by next year and they will split ranger duties, Hermes said. However, those rangers won’t have the ability to ticket violators. RFTA has approached Garfield County about help with enforcement, at RFTA’s expense, according to Hermes.In his report, Lowsky said the trail will cause some level of disturbance to wildlife, even if RFTA follows his recommendations.”There would be some [impacts] but there would not be disturbances to wildlife that would affect the viability of populations of any species in the area,” he said.Use of the trail will force some sensitive songbirds like the Virginia’s warbler off habitat directly adjacent to the old railroad corridor where the trail is being built, he said. Mule deer and other mammals will be skittish about crossing the corridor during busy daylight hours.Those are indirect impacts to wildlife because they don’t destroy or take away habitat, but they reduce its use. Lowsky said that the advantage of the trail is it uses an existing rail right of way rather than cuts a new swath through the riverside lands. The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad was granted the land in 1887. Trains ran up and down the valley on the tracks until the early 1960s.A pedestrian and bicycle trail has been developed on the rail corridor from Aspen to Carbondale with the exception of the stretch past Rock Bottom Ranch. Now RFTA is spending $1.2 million to fill in that four-mile link.Trail foe Jim Duke said he wouldn’t drop his opposition even if RFTA adopted a dog ban and seasonal closure. He said he doubts the agency could enforce those rules.Duke is pushing for construction of a trail from El Jebel to Catherine Store along Valley Road and old Highway 82. That trail would be more functional, because it’s closer to business and services, and easier on wildlife, he said. RFTA officials counter that they are building a trail on the railroad corridor because it is land they already own, so the cost is significantly lower.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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