One Dirty Magazine

Havoc in the Wilderness

Increasing numbers of trail runners are wreaking unintended consequences

Michael Benge November 6th, 2019

Havoc in the Wilderness

In the past decade, recreation has skyrocketed on our public lands, with mountain bikers, hikers, trail runners, ORV riders, snowshoers, dirt bikers, anglers, hunters and skiers pounding the backcountry year round. In places, the traffic increase has dramatically changed the experience of backcountry travel. For example, while the famous 28-mile Four Pass Loop near Aspen, Colorado, an hour’s drive from the Trail Runner offices, is almost entirely in designated wilderness, the stream of people on the trails make it hard to achieve a “wilderness experience.” The route is still beautiful, and, in the end, we are no worse off physically for the wild increase in traffic.

But there are other residents of the area that are being profoundly negatively impacted—wildlife, and in particular the magnificent Rocky Mountain elk.

In a June 16, 2018, article in the Vail Daily by Pam Boyd, a sobering quote from a wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife sums up the magnitude of the problem: “The numbers [of elk] we have counted have dropped some 50 (percent) to 60 percent in the last 10 years,” Craig Wescoatt said. “We are not seeing the animals migrate to another area or permanently move somewhere else. They are just dead and gone.”

A combination of factors is to blame, but the prime culprit, say the wildlife biologists quoted in the Vail Daily article and others, is human disruption. And while it is easy to blame the more obvious offenders like braapping dirt bikers or dog owners who allow their pets to chase wildlife, the elk appear to be overstressed by the sheer volume of human encounters. In our region, trail runners are going more often to previously seldom-visited areas, many of them elk enclaves. The elk have few undisturbed areas to rest.

What happens when elk get overstressed? They die.

Tom Cardamone is the executive director of the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative, a two-year science-based study involving numerous public and private stakeholders on Colorado’s one-million-acre Roaring Fork Watershed from Aspen to the Colorado River. Wrapping up next year, the study hopes to be responsive to the causes of the wildlife declines by determining the highest-priority conservation areas and craft an action plan to protect and restore biodiversity. While Cardamone acknowledges that the situation is critical, he expresses hope for solutions and compliance.

“Whether you’re a mushroom hunter or ridge runner, all recreationalists seem to value wildlife,” he says. “Our hope is that they would be willing to concentrate in less-important areas and accept restrictions that would allow recovery of the ecosystem.”

               
   

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Jeff S CrumbaughLiam Robb O'HaganJodieSteve Recent comment authors
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Steve
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Steve

I don’t understand how the occassional dog/wildlife interaction can seriously be viewed as detrimental to the overall ecosystem. Many people would consider the reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone to be a success story in ecosystem restoration, and what happened to elk in that case? Their behavior changed abruptly to reflect the fact that they were now being hunted by four-legged dog-like things – i.e. they were ‘stressed’. I can’t see how a dog chasing an elk for a couple of minutes has any effect on reproductive success (P.S. I always leash my dog in Wilderness). Elk and other large… Read more »

Jodie
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Jodie

This seems like a relatively small problem compared to habitat loss by development. The solution seems to be preserving and expanding habitat so they have more places to roam, not stopping outdoor recreation.

Liam Robb O'Hagan
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Liam Robb O'Hagan

This is interesting and challenging for outdoor recreationalists. When I first read about this in the Guardian in the late summer, one of the comments incredulously mentioned all the Elk roaming around Estes Park. I can see why people would make comments like that, but the behavior of the Estes Park Elk (maybe that herd better habituated to humans) doesn’t explain the decline in Elk numbers around Vail. This is one of the better articles on the issue: (https://www.vaildaily.com/news/where-has-all-the-wildlife-gone-cpw-officials-cite-50-percent-drop-in-eagle-valleys-elk-population/) The scientists have done what they do: investigated the possible causes of this and determined that the best explanation is the… Read more »

Jeff S Crumbaugh
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Jeff S Crumbaugh

Benge makes a really strong case for reducing the density of visitation or running in wilderness areas. It certainly supports the ethic of limiting field sizes for races. The field size should be determined by local land managers to minimize impact. It worries me when I see field sizes over 1000 in a trail race. Nevertheless, the more serious culprit is development and sprawl, that has a more permanent impact by destroying habitat. One possible action, other than visiting less popular areas, would be engaging in habitat restoration efforts. This has become more popular here in Wisconsin – purchasing tired,… Read more »

 
 

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