American Elk Population Threatened By The Increasing Popularity Of Outdoor Activities

Vail, Colorado, is known as one of the most beautiful places in the United States, drawing tourists from around the world, many of whom travel to the city for outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking, and skiing.

But the popularity of Vail is having devastating consequences for the elk population in the area, The Guardian reports, and their numbers have begun to decline precipitously in recent years:

“Biologists used to count over 1,000 head of elk from the air near Vail, Colorado. The majestic brown animals, a symbol of the American west, dotted hundreds of square miles of slopes and valleys.

“But when researchers flew the same area in February for an annual elk count, they saw only 53.

“The surprising culprit isn’t expanding fossil-fuel development, herd mismanagement by state agenciesor predators, wildlife managers say. It’s increasing numbers of outdoor recreationists – everything from hikers, mountain bikers and backcountry skiers to Jeep, all-terrain vehicle and motorcycle riders. Researchers are now starting to understand why.”

Over the past decade, the popularity of national parks and recreation areas has increased dramatically. For example, Yosemite National Park now has over 5 million visitors annually. And while that’s good news for the parks from a financial standpoint, it’s bad news for wildlife, especially elk. But it’s hard to convince local leaders that outdoor recreation is a bad thing since it’s expected to provide $62 billion in revenue to the state’s economy in 2019.

Bill Alldredge is a retired wildlife professor at Colorado State University. He began studying the Vail elk population in the 1980s and decided he’d determine what impact human activity had on elk in the area. Here’s what he did:

“To measure the impact on calves, he deliberately sent eight people hiking into calving areas until radio-collared elk showed signs of disturbance, such as standing up or walking away. The consequences were startling. About 30% of the elk calves died when their mothers were disturbed an average of seven times during calving. Models showed that if each cow elk was bothered 10 times during calving, all their calves would die.

“When disturbances stopped, the number of calves bounced back.

Two years ago, the issue came to a head when the Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance pitched the idea of building a new hiking trail right through elk breeding grounds.

Bill Andree, the former  Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Vail district wildlife manager, spoke out forcefully against the move. He wrote a letter explaining how such a plan would be devastating to the elk:

“Generally when you ask people to stay out of the area no matter what the reason is, 80-90% obey you. But if you get 10% who don’t obey you, you haven’t done any good.”

For their part, those who participate in outdoor recreation say they understand they do indeed have an impact on wildlife, but they claim they can mitigate any harm:

“The recreation community acknowledges its impact on wildlife as well as other development, said Ernest Saeger, the executive director of the mountain trails alliance. Many people don’t understand the significance of the closures. Others, he acknowledged, just don’t care.

“So the group formed a trail ambassador program to post more informative signs at closures and even place volunteers at trailheads to explain why trails are closed. The scheme reduced closure violations in 2018, according to Forest Service numbers.”

But defenders of the elk and other wildlife in the area warn that if trail building continues to intrude on wildlife areas, the result will be catastrophic, with Andree predicting:

“It will be a biological desert.”

Featured Image Via Pixabay


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Andrew Bradford

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