STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
All the brown around got you down? Look on the bright side.
While the lack of snow has hampered winter sports, it also has prompted public-lands officials to delay seasonal trail closures.
All Bureau of Land Management lands will remain open until snow conditions determine they must close. The BLM works with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife to determine when an area needs to be closed based on snow depth at high-altitude locations and the behavior of animals at those elevations.
Last year, BLM areas did not close until January because of a lack of snow. Public-land officials say this may be the case again this year. However, there is no way to know for sure, as decisions are based on week-to-week snow conditions. Areas will be closed when the snow is high enough that animals are forced to move to lower elevation.
“We have the liberty to wait until conditions are such that we have to make closures,” said Shannon Borders, public affairs specialist with the Southwestern District of the BLM. These areas normally open again by late March, and no later than April 15.
Upper Twin Buttes, land owned by the city of Durango, also will be closed when conditions change, said Cathy Metz, director of Durango Parks and Recreation.
“Last year was the first year we had ownership. It was previously private property,” said Metz. “When it became public land, we could manage it in the same way as other areas in our urban interface.”
Lower Twin Buttes will remain open to the public throughout the year.
These annual closures are meant to protect wildlife in the challenging winter months.
“Deer, elk and other wildlife are especially vulnerable to disturbance in winter, so if you encroach in their habitat, their flight response comes into effect, and they spend a lot of energy avoiding contact,” Borders said.
Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said deer and elk can lose 30 to 40 percent of their body weight in the winter, making it crucial they are able to conserve energy during this time.
“It is critical to have a winter range area where those animals can go and have safe harbor,” said Lewandowski.
Areas that close are deemed “critical wildlife habitats,” meaning there is a high population of wildlife in the area with few options to forage.
However, not all Durango residents agree with the closures.
Hiker Gregg Wurtz said he was against the annual closures.
“I think animals are pretty adaptable, and I think the numbers as far as deer and elk are doing pretty well,” he said.
Wurtz said he would like to see evidence that closures are reducing wildlife mortality rates.
Hiker Cheri St. Dennis said the closures do not have much of an effect on her outdoor recreation, but the closure of Animas City Mountain areas, which shut down the day after hunting season ends, is something she would like to see changed.
“I understand the wildlife needs to stay safe and protected, but I wish it stayed open past hunting season for a reasonable amount of time,” said St. Dennis.
She said she appreciates that wildlife needs to have a winter habitat, but would like to be able to use the area while hunters are not out.
“There is not much time to enjoy that area. It would be nice to have it open a little while after hunting season to enjoy in the fall,” she said.
Officials emphasize that there are many areas left open for people to enjoy during the winter in place of the lands closed to public use.
“We need to share the habitat with (the wildlife). That is why we provide areas where there is not as much human-wildlife interaction close to town,” said Metz. “I think trail users in particular are very respectful of animals in our community and know that we have to coexist.”
Officials stress many alternative areas remain open for use through the winter.
Kevin Hall, director of public and open spaces for Trails 2000, said the majority of trails around the community will remain open for public use. This includes Raiders Ridge, the Fort Lewis College Rim Trail, Durango Mountain Park, Horse Gulch and Carbon Junction trails.
“It is not like there is a lack of areas to hike in around Durango, but what we do lack is places that are safe places to harbor for the animals,” said Lewandowski.
Sarah Ford is an intern for The Durango Herald. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org