Fun and Games, Until Elk Get Hurt

Fun and Games, Until Elk Get Hurt

Q&A with Luke Wiedel

Colorado elk populations are in crisis.

We tend to take our public lands and wildlife for granted—it's human nature—but every so often nature gives us a wake-up call,” said Luke Wiedel, a Colorado resident and life member of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

That wake-up call is the decline of elk in areas of Colorado. We sat down with Luke to get the details on what exactly is going on and what needs to be done.


What’s the main issue here?

Elk populations are experiencing some troubling declines in areas throughout Colorado. As wildlife managers struggle to find out why, one likely culprit is the rapidly growing trend of outdoor recreation, such as trails.

Meanwhile, trails are being constructed and proposed on an unprecedented scale throughout Colorado’s critical elk habitat, including calving grounds and migration routes. In Steamboat Springs, the City’s accommodations tax, which is frequently called the 2A tax after the 2013 ballot initiative, has allowed for the recent construction of a large trails project in the Buffalo Pass area and the recent proposal of the Mad-Rabbit Trails Project—a project which proposes the carving up of many square miles of roadless expanse in the Routt National Forest.

As lovers of the outdoors, we—hunters, anglers, bikers, hikers, walkers, campers and riders—need to choose wisely where we recreate, and in turn, where we build trails, keeping in mind that our recreation has impacts on elk and other wildlife survival.


Which pieces of information are important for the public to know?

  • Colorado has the largest elk population of any state. With roughly 230,000 elk, Colorado is home to about one-fourth of the elk on the planet.

  • Animals, particularly elk, deer, and antelope, are starving to make it through winter (even less severe winters) and calving and lactation. In their summer feeding ranges, every calorie counts—and the cumulative impact of all these little disturbances is where we start to see permanent and lasting effects. Furthermore, the animals are not simply displaced to another area by these effects. Rather, that particular sub-population experiences difficulty with recruitment, and, eventually, simply stops recruiting young into the herd at a healthy enough pace.

  • While we must be clear that all types of recreation can have adverse effects on elk and other wildlife, mounting biking does seem to have the potential to more severely impact an area.

  • Wildlife managers suspect human recreation is a factor in the 50% decline in elk herds over the last 15 years in Eagle County.

  • Wildlife survives by reducing energy demands, i.e. they spend large periods of time just lying down (some studies say up to 90%). This point is often overlooked especially when people say the critter just got up and walked away, it wasn't bothered by me being there. Causing an animal to get up or to reduce feeding time is an impact, and when this happens several times a day, it can be a significant impact. (Source: Bill Andree, retired CPW wildlife manager).

  • Wildlife is in a fight for survival and is not looking for exercise, an adventure or a thrill. They are looking to sustain themselves and recruit young into the population. We as humans have the choice of where and when we recreate, and we must choose wisely so that wildlife can survive. (Source: Bill Andree, retired CPW wildlife manager).


Proposed Mad Rabbit Trail - Source: Rocky Mountain Wild


Source: Rocky Mountain Wild


Source: Rocky Mountain Wild

How does this affect individuals living outside of Colorado?

The issue of human disturbance and the effect it has on elk recruitment is bigger than Steamboat Springs, CO. This is an issue which has implications for all western communities with growing demands for outdoor recreation. This is happening in many places across the West.

The Mad Rabbit Trails Projects are proposed on Federal National Forest land. This is public land--land that belongs to all Americans. All citizens nationwide have a right to be concerned about wildlife habitat loss and fragmentation as it relates to the increasing demand for outdoor recreation. Moving forward, the collaboration between outdoor recreational user groups on a national level is crucial if our wild places, and the migratory big game that rely on them, are to thrive.


What is the reason these trails are being built? What do you think the opposing view is?

The City of Steamboat Springs, CO adopted an accommodations tax (2A) in 2013 to fund trails projects and improvements. At the time, the public, as well as agencies tasked with managing our National Forests and wildlife, were hopeful that the 2A accommodations tax would provide much needed funding to expand recreational opportunities close to town.

Now, with the completion of the Buffalo Pass Trails Project just last year, the funding provided by 2A already seeks to develop more large scale trails projects in the area, leaving few wild, undeveloped tracts on the area’s public lands.

From my own perspective, the opposing view believes that we must continue to grow our recreational opportunities on our public lands to remain competitive in the tourism industry—it will continue to serve as an economic driver to the local economy. Because some of the effects on our elk and other wildlife are “invisible,” I don’t believe recreators realize the effects their presence is having on wildlife and their habitat.


What is your main request for the time being? What do you want the Forest Service and Steamboat Springs to do about this issue? 

Soon, we expect that the Forest Service will begin a formal comment period and public input will be important during that time as well. However, these decision makers need to hear from us now.

It’s prudent that the public, Steamboat Springs, USFS, and CPW wildlife biologists and managers understand what could happen when we carve up some of our last remaining wild, road-less areas on public lands. Once these trails are built, we have changed the scene for elk and other wildlife forever.

Furthermore, it should be understood that any estimated costs of building trails projects must also include the cost of enforcing any future trails closures during calving seasons, the cost of enforcing rules and regulations, and any road maintenance costs incurred by the County caused by increased use.


What can people do about this?

Considering what’s happening in Eagle County, and in the name of conservation, please write a letter or email to voice your concerns.

Tell the Forest Service, CO Parks & Wildlife, Steamboat Springs City Council, and the Routt County Commissioners that we are opposed to further trail development in our national forests and public lands without understanding ALL the cumulative impacts such development has on wildlife, habitat, and future hunting opportunities. The data is clear—human disturbance and outdoor recreation of all types has significant impacts on elk and other wildlife.


Email your letter of support for wildlife to each of the following influential decision makers:,,,,,,,,


Bullet points might include:

  • We value our wildlife and undisturbed habitat over new trails.

  • The elk population surrounding Steamboat in GMU 14 and 214 is beginning to show signs of decline, potentially because of the Buffalo Pass trail network and other local recreational use.

  • We should proceed with extreme caution while planning new trails, particularly in light of the drastic declines in Eagle County elk herds, which are very likely a result of trail construction and use.

  • This is a statewide crisis and we should call upon and encourage wildlife biologists and managers to continue gathering data prior to any further trail construction, with the goal of understanding the cumulative effect that these projects could have on wildlife populations.


Anything else you would like to add?

On a personal note, I have hunted with my dad and my five brothers for over 20 years in northwest Colorado. And, I hope to someday hunt with my three young daughters. In my experience, while admittedly circumstantial, we have seen less elk in GMU 14 following the construction of the Buffalo Pass Trails Project. I am certainly concerned about these opportunities disappearing along with our hunting heritage.

The existing trails are not at capacity and the area surrounding Steamboat Springs is not lacking in outdoor opportunities. Why then, are we so motivated to build yet another enormous network of trails through a road-less area in sensitive elk habitat, including calving grounds/production areas?

It is imperative that each user group not simply blame other user groups. We all have an impact on wildlife and habitat and it’s time we collectively understand these impacts and their implications for the future of our wildlife, our outdoor recreating, and our local economies.

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About Luke Wiedel

I'm a life member of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. I have guided in Southeast Alaska for 20 years and am an avid outdoorsman and conservationist. I live in Wheat Ridge, CO in the winter months with my wife and three young daughters.

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