Protecting Wildlife and Mountain Bike Trails: The Mad Rabbit Trail Controversy

Caption and photo from the Denver Post “Land managers in Colorado have been unable to keep up with the evolving uses and demands like biking of mountain trails, writes Steve Lipsher. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)”

I ran across this in the Sunday Denver Post, and it seemed relevant to our ongoing discussions. What I think is particularly interesting about this is when mountain bike trails come up as an issue, and when not, on National Forests. (I noticed some anti MB sentiment in one public comment letters on the Pisgah Nantahala forest plan, so it could be a national issue).  Following my inertial theory of resource management (it’s harder to kick uses out than not to allow them in the first place), perhaps it’s just new trails that raise controversy? But not everywhere, as near Colorado Springs, we want to complete the Ring the Peak trail and so far I haven’t heard concerns about wildlife. So maybe completion and initiation are two different things?

The debate in Steamboat Springs is over a proposed network of mountain bike trails that would be funded with revenue from a local lodging tax and built in the Routt National Forest. Outdoor recreation enthusiasts, many of them mountain bikers, have hit a speed bump in efforts to add more trails — hunters and wildlife advocates who say elk and other animals could be harmed.

With tensions building, the Steamboat Springs City Council hired the Keystone Policy Center to oversee public meetings aimed at reaching agreement on the proposal the U.S. Forest Service will consider. Ahead of a March 4 meeting, tensions and frustrations remain high, people on various sides of the issue say.

“There’s a high degree of suspicion that this is a railroad,” said Larry Desjardin, who lives in Steamboat Springs and is a member of the newly formed group Keep Routt Wild.

News of declining elk numbers in other parts of Colorado and reports from local hunters of fewer elk where earlier trails were built have prompted the group to call for a pause, Desjardin said.

“What we’re really trying to do is understand the impact that outdoor recreation has on wildlife and wildlife habitat and have a really holistic planning process,” Desjardin said. “There’s a sprawl of outdoor recreation, and we’re trying to treat that just like we do housing.”

Housing construction, mining, oil and gas drilling and transportation are bigger threats to wildlife than trails, Kelly Northcutt wrote in a Jan. 10 letter in the Steamboat Pilot and Today newspaper.

“Really, a wildlife advocate group should be looking at a lot of other issues besides a handful of trail connectors,” Northcutt, executive director of the cycling advocacy group Routt County Riders, said in an interview…
Sonja Macys, a Steamboat Springs City Council member, is representing the city in the discussions. She said those worried about the impacts on wildlife feel as though they’re not being listened to.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has also raised concerns about the cumulative impacts of more trails on wildlife. In a 2018 letter to the Forest Service, JT Romatzke, CPW’s northwest regional manager, wrote that “outdoor recreation associated with trails influences a variety of wildlife species in multiple ways.”

Two trail options under review at that time — one 79 miles total and the other 68 miles — would affect from 44,500 to 48,100 acres of wildlife habitat, according to CPW. The estimates are based on the miles of trails and the results of studies showing how far elk and mule deer stay away from trails that are in use.

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