SNOWMASS VILLAGE - The protection of critical winter elk habitat was a key consideration in the $17 million purchase of an open space parcel outside Snowmass Village two years ago.
Now, cameras will help Pitkin County Open Space and Trails officials keep tabs on the animals - an effort that eventually could lead to some flexibility in the date the 842-acre property reopens to human use each spring.
The open space is at the heart of a greater collection of properties collectively known as Sky Mountain Park, most of which is closed seasonally from Dec. 1 until May 15. The closure includes the popular Skyline Ridge Trail, which follows the ridge that separates the Brush Creek and Owl Creek valleys, stretching from the edge of Snowmass Village nearly to Highway 82.
The trail has been outfitted with a couple of motion-activated cameras that give open space officials a sense of the types of recreation occurring there - how many hikers versus mountain bikers or equestrians use the route - but two more are being installed off the trail, in areas where elk and deer are known to congregate.
Last winter, open space land steward Gary Tennenbaum hiked onto the property, despite the closure, to conduct surveys of the animals.
"I went up and looked. It's pretty easy - you can see tracks and lots of them," he said.
The cameras, he noted, are less intrusive and reduce the need for any human presence in the area, which is the whole point of the winter closure.
"We're going to keep surveying over time - really see how much elk use is there at certain times of the year," he said.
The established closure dates will remain in place for the time being, though in 2011 - the first year the ridge opened to the public - the spring closure was extended by a week because the trail was still muddy and deep snow kept elk from moving to their calving areas on Burnt Mountain on schedule. Last spring, the snow was gone early, and some members of the public clamored for an early opening. Citations were issued to several violators of the closure.
"We're not going to change the dates based on one year of data," Tennenbaum said.
While the additional cameras are intended to track wildlife, anyone spotted violating the winter closure can expect contact from a ranger, assuming the violator is recognizable in a photograph.
"We're not trying to use these cameras to bust people up there, but we're pretty adamant about keeping the area closed during the most critical times," Tennenbaum said.
In the summer months, the cameras trained on trail users are, incidentally, capturing images of wildlife, as well, including elk, deer, coyotes and even a black bear.
As part of management of the elk herd, limited hunting on the property is in the plans. It did not occur this fall, though, despite plenty of interest from hunters, according to Tennenbaum.
A short closure of the open space during the final big-game rifle season, in November, is planned for next year to allow hunting, he said.
"It's a management tool; it's not a recreation deal for us," he said. "At the most, we'd probably let five people in there."
A lottery of some sort needs to be established to choose the individuals who will be allowed to hunt on the open space, Tennenbaum said.