$2.57 million awarded to fund elk studies and habitat improvement across Colorado

More than $2.57 million will fund projects to research elk and improve habitat across Colorado.(Pilot & Today file photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — More than $2.57 million will fund projects aimed at studying declining elk populations across Colorado and to enhance habitat for a variety of wildlife.

From 1999 to 2015, herd populations have shrunk more than 50%, exacerbated by an increase in hunting from 2003 to 2004, according to studies from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation raised the money, $600,000 of which comes from its own coffers and the rest of which comes from its partner organizations, including the Bureau of Land Management, Medicine Bow–Routt National Forest, CPW and others.

The projects will impact Routt County, according to a news release from the Elk Foundation. One study will assess the primary reasons for higher mortality rates among elk calves. Another study will analyze how elk respond to human recreation near Steamboat Springs, the results of which will help to guide future game management decisions, according to the news release.

The research is an extension of a six-year study already underway in Routt County, according to Eric Bergman, a wildlife researcher with CPW. In January, officials netted elk outside Steamboat to put trackers on the animals to see how human recreation affects the health of elk herds. Officials will place collars on more elk this winter, Bergman said.

This summer, the agency also is working with a graduate student from the University of Wyoming to evaluate trail usage around Steamboat and any correlations with its effects on elk herds.

The issue of recreation-caused disturbances on wildlife has pitted interests of a growing outdoor industry — which generates $28 billion in consumer spending annually in Colorado alone, according to the Office of Economic Development and International Trade — against concerns over the health of habitats, which also carry economic impact.

For example, a 2018 study from Southwick Associates, a research firm specializing in recreation markets, found that hunting and fishing generates $1.8 billion annually in Colorado, up from $845 million in 2004.

Other studies have evaluated human impacts on elk in places like the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys. Research funded by Rocky Mountain Wild and Patagonia found that as communities grow and encroach into natural land, and as trails bring more people farther into elk habitat, it could cause major disruptions for herds. Among the most concerning consequences are lower reproduction rates and poorer health, though more research is needed to confirm the findings.

Money from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and its partners also will fund habitat improvement projects, according to the foundation’s news release. About 790 acres in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests will receive prescribed burning and thinning treatments meant to enhance the quantity and quality of forage for wildlife. The treatments also will reduce the risk of large wildfires.

Another portion of the money will fund a campaign to oppose Proposition 114, a controversial initiative that seeks to reintroduce gray wolves into Colorado.