Opinion | Susan Knopf: Vail developers endanger bighorn sheep herd | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Susan Knopf: Vail developers endanger bighorn sheep herd

Just 45 bighorn sheep remain from a herd that numbered 120 back in the 1990s and more than 100 in 2007. The last bit of winter forage is at stake. Environmentalists hope Triumph Development and co-developer Vail Resorts will fail big and the sheep will keep their last bit of winter grazing intact.

The snippet of land is just 23 acres and much of that is reportedly rockfall, according to Jonathan Staufer, spokesman for Gore Valley Citizens Alliance. He would love for you to show up at the Vail Town Council meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15, in the council chambers at 75 S. Frontage Road in Vail. Bleat for the sheep, and stomp your feet. Sign the petition on GoreValley.com. Protest what Staufer calls unbridled “greed.”

The building permit is already approved. It’s being appealed. According to Staufer, a record 22 appeals were filed. Staufer says seven were given standing by the Town Council. Much like the ramrod of Sky Ranch in Silverthorne, the developer will get more than an hour to present while the public gets just three minutes per person.

Staufer encourages the public to show support for the sheep. He says, “This is not a Vail issue. Those sheep belong to all of us.”

I’m not so sure the sheep belong to us. But I’m pretty sure we can’t keep destroying the garden we have been given and call it progress.

The town of Vail published a press release, which RealVail.com posted, with the following information: “As approved on Aug. 26 by the (Planning and Environmental Commission) with 14 conditions, the Booth Heights development contains 61 residential units, including 49 units of deed-restricted employee housing units (EHUs), (30 EHUs in 3 multi-family apartment buildings, and 19 EHUs in townhomes), plus 12 unrestricted townhomes in addition to 125 surface parking spaces and 31 garage spaces.” 

Staufer says they are going to try build all that on just five acres because the rest is really unbuildable. But to make that five acres buildable, they’ll scrape and level it off and have to build a trench above to catch the falling rocks. There really isn’t a better building parcel anywhere in Vail, where bighorn sheep don’t graze? Hard to imagine.

Harder still to imagine is how this parcel fell into the laps of Vail Resorts after reportedly being off the tax rolls for decades. According to Gore Valley Citizens Alliance, Vail “acquire(s) title after someone at the town tips them off and they trot down to Eagle County and pay roughly $30,000 in back taxes.” According to the alliance, in the “1970s, title went back and forth between (the Colorado Department of Transportation) and Vail Associates during acquisition of rights for building I-70.
Property disappears off the tax rolls around this time.”

Everybody is for workforce housing. Everybody is for the sheep, too. I was fascinated reading the wildlife biologists’ objections to the proposed development. Wildlife experts who made careers studying and managing bighorn herds oppose the development. The considerations are interesting. It’s not just the direct contact; there’s impact from indirect contact.

Apparently, sheep don’t graze just anywhere. They graze where they have historically grazed. Disturb the pattern, and they don’t just move somewhere else. They decline, they get sick, they mate less, and they produce fewer lambs. Add severe winters, and the biologists all concur extirpation, the extermination of a herd that has called Vail Valley and the Gore Range home far longer than we have.

We all value the bighorn sheep. How will we explain to our children why we exterminated the last 45 bighorn sheep in Vail Valley over 61 housing units?

“Vail has other places it can build,” Staufer said. “The bighorn sheep don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Susan Knopf’s column “For the Record” publishes biweekly on Fridays in the Summit Daily News. Knopf lives in Silverthorne. She is a certified ski instructor and an award-winning journalist. Contact her at sdnknopf@gmail.com.

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