A bit of a shakeup could be coming to trails around Durango as land managers try to balance recreation and wildlife.
Currently, the Bureau of Land Management is updating what is known as a Transportation and Access Planning document, which takes stock of all the trails on BLM lands and designates the types of uses allowed there, such as hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and ATVs.
Mike Schmidt, a wildlife biologist for the BLM’s Tres Rios Office, said trails around Durango, and what’s allowed there, will stay the same, for the most part.
A few proposed changes, however, would prohibit mountain biking on some trails in an attempt to reduce disturbances of big game like elk and deer, which has irked some in the mountain bike community.
“All I can say is we have to trust it’s based on science,” said Trails 2000 Director Mary Monroe Brown. “I haven’t seen that science, but I’m not saying it doesn’t exist.”
Land management agencies are under an increasingly difficult task to balance all the demands on the land, and while the BLM’s proposed plan isn’t meant to be a cure-all for ailing elk and deer populations in Southwest Colorado, Schmidt said it is a step toward balance.
“We’re a huge mountain bike community, and we didn’t want to decrease the number of trails,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to make decisions to balance resources as best we can.”
The Perins Peak State Wildlife Area is a 4,900-acre swath of land to Durango’s west managed mostly by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, with wildlife and habitat conservation as its main management priority. It’s considered one of the most important winter ranges for elk and deer in the area.
As a result, CPW restricts uses there to mostly foot traffic.
The BLM, however, manages about 1,500 acres of the state wildlife area.
In the 1970s, the BLM also made wildlife and habitat management its top priority for the area, banning any motorized use. In 2015, the agency also decided to prohibit mountain biking after a rise in popularity in the sport over the decades put new pressures on the land.
Because of this period where there was no enforcement, mountain bikers became accustomed to and formed an attachment to popular trails like Perins Gulch, Slime Gulch and Skid Ridge. The trails will remain open to pedestrians and equestrian use.
The latest update to the trails plan further solidifies the ban on mountain bikes, with the agency intending to launch an educational effort to inform recreationalists of the closure.
“I’m a mountain biker, and I understand people get attached to trails,” Schmidt said. “But Perins Peak is a habitat management area ... and more and more research is coming out that mountain bikes disturb wildlife.”
On Animas City Mountain, on the northern end of Durango city limits, the situation is a little more tricky.
There are only three trails at Animas City Mountain formally recognized, yet there are more than eight existing trails the BLM is aware of, Schmidt said.
The plan is to close trails to mountain biking on the flanks of Animas City Mountain and redesign routes on top of the mesa in an effort to steer recreationalists away from areas important to wildlife and their migration corridors.
Pedestrians would still be able to use trails on the flanks but would be highly recommended to stay off them and use trails on the mesa.
While the BLM would close popular trails like Sickbird (an unauthorized trail), the agency is proposing two new downhill trails for mountain bikers. And, biking would be allowed on the new trails on top of the mesa.
Brian Magee, a wildlife biologist for CPW, stressed the ecological importance of the Perins Peak and Animas City Mountain. He wrote to the BLM the areas’ value to wildlife “cannot be understated.”
The areas serve as places for elk and deer to take refuge during the winter months. And it’s an important corridor for these big game as they move from lower elevations during winter to higher elevations in the summer.
Part of protecting big game is limiting disturbances, and every year, wildlife officials close the area to all users from about Dec. 1 to April 15.
In speaking with The Durango Herald, Magee said spooking big game can result in the animals burning unnecessary calories by running away from humans rather than packing on the pounds to survive winter. And, it takes them away from prime vegetation areas.
Wildlife managers interviewed for this story acknowledged all types of recreation, including hiking, affects wildlife. But they pointed to studies that indicate mountain bikes disturb animals more than hiking and horseback riding.
A U.S. Forest Service study published in 2018, for instance, found elk fled more than 3,000 feet when a mountain bike approached, compared with just 1,640 to 2,460 when a person walked by or passed on horseback.
And because mountain bikes are able to travel greater distances farther into the backcountry, this is causing more elk to congregate in a smaller range.
“You’ve basically reduced what we call carrying capacity, the number of animals that can make a living on the landscape,” said Mike Wisdom, co-author of the report.
Monroe Brown said mountain bikers are disappointed with the trails plan. She argued that Durango is a destination for people to live and visit because of the opportunities to recreate on public lands, and the BLM took away more trails from bikers than it added.
“I didn’t think the plan matched up with the articulation of the values of our community,” she said.
Monroe Brown said Trails 2000 proposed more than 12 trail concepts, including creating a trail connection between Twin Buttes and Overend Mountain Park. But, she said the recommendations weren’t taken into account.
The BLM said many of the proposed routes conflicted with wildlife protections.
While a few miles of trails were closed to mountain bikes, there was a modest net gain of pedestrian trails around Durango. Monroe Brown acknowledged there needs to be a balance between recreation and wildlife, but that it’s a tricky one to strike.
“When we start looking at one user versus the other, you get into an elitist conversation,” she said.
Elk populations in Southwest Colorado are struggling, and no one is blaming any one smoking gun.
Instead, a host of factors are likely contributing to elk declines, including habitat loss, pressure from hunters and recreationalists, drought and possibly unforeseen diseases.
And because of this uncertainty, it’s going to take a range of actions to help. Reducing disturbances, in any small way, can be seen as a benefit.
“Everybody’s recreation has an impact,” said Steve McClung, a district wildlife ranger with CPW. “But if we can concentrate the uses so all these disturbances occur in one area, and we can leave another area untouched, it’s a benefit for wildlife to use that for migration and rest during the winter.”
And as for giving up trails on Perins Peak and Animas City Mountain, it’s unfortunate people became accustomed to the trails in those areas, Magee said, but protecting wildlife habitat has always been the top priority set for those areas.
“The mountain bike trails being taken away were not legal in the first place,” Magee said. “And there are literally hundreds of miles of other trails (in the Durango area) open to bikers.”