Butting heads over bighorns: It’s economic interests vs. wildlife – again – in Colorado high country
DENVER — Colorado’s declining bighorn sheep population faces increased competition as Vail developers plan to build worker housing on habitat east of town, a conflict pitting economic interests at a ritzy mountain resort against wildlife in once-pristine high country.
Elected officials in Vail must decide on the proposed construction of 73 housing units in a meadow along Interstate 70 where a beleaguered herd of bighorns – hurt by human disturbances, weak vegetation and seasonal die-off – forages during winter below Gore Range peaks.
This conflict has escalated over the past two years into a test of whether the mitigation that developers customarily offer to offset harm – in this case, building a berm and planting trees to shield bighorns from people – will be accepted as sufficient.
“There unequivocally are going to be impacts. It remains to be seen whether any meaningful mitigation effort is going to have tangible benefits,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Devin Duval.
On one hand, Vail officials say they need housing that service workers can afford to create a sense of community and reduce worker driving. Only 20% of Vail’s 8,500 workers live in town. The others commute as far as 75 miles over mountain passes from Buena Vista. Houses in Vail cost $1.3 million on average, and monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment runs $1,200.
On the other hand, bighorns play key mountain ecological roles, eating grasses and shrubs, and as prey. They are Colorado’s state animal, revered for their curled horns, head-butting and photogenic profiles on cliffs. Bighorns have decreased statewide to about 6,800 animals, down from an estimated 7,600 in 2012 and 8,000 in 2001, state data shows. In the Vail Valley, bighorns have decreased to about 5% of their historic numbers, along with other wildlife species. The herd that forages east of Vail has shrunk over the past 12 years by 40% to around 50 bighorns.
“Everybody talks about death by a thousand cuts when it comes to wildlife habitat,” Duval said. “It would behoove the town of Vail to zoom out and assess on a broader scale the impacts not only of this development but of proposed new development around the town shops by the public works building. That’s also bighorn sheep range. . And we’ve got to factor in the forecast increases in recreational pressures.”
But Steve Virostek, principal and co-founder of Triumph, the developer proposing the housing, argued that the project will result in the enhancement of 18 acres of the bighorns’ habitat.
“This herd has been in trouble for 20 years. Our project already has raised awareness of the herd. Our project will do more to help this herd than to hurt this herd,” Virostek said in an interview.
He added: “If they could find another site for employee housing, we would do that. But they don’t exist.” Alternative land in town would cost $10 million, he said.
Across the West, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep – once numbering more than 2 million – face increasing stress as development eclipses their habitat. Some herds have been devastated by respiratory disease, often spread from domestic sheep. Bighorns also must compete with non-native mountain goats for terrain.
When herds are healthy, bighorns are lucrative: Colorado Parks and Wildlife charges out-of-staters $2,211 for hunting licenses, and hunters kill about 306 a year. So state wildlife managers for decades have tried to boost herds, relocating and transplanting bighorns, struggling to prevent disease. But Colorado now has had to designate bighorns as “a species of concern” that eventually could vanish in the wild.
In Vail, the Vail Homeowners Association this month opposed the development as currently proposed. And a 40-member alliance called Citizens to Protect Our Wildlife, devoted to saving the bighorns, asked Gov. Jared Polis for help. This is a matter of “trading native species for concrete,” said the group’s researcher, Grace Poganski. “At what cost, not only environmentally but morally, do we go down this road?”
An 840-member regional chamber of commerce, the Vail Valley Partnership, countered with a letter asking Polis to stay out of the battle, deferring to “local control,” unless he intends to “enthusiastically support” the housing construction.
Triumph, the development company, remains under contract to buy the 23-acre site east of town, now owned by Vail Resorts, apparently after a transfer from the Colorado Department of Transportation. The developers say the 73 units would house about 150 people, while opponents argue that total more likely would reach 250.
Triumph proposes to concentrate housing on 5 acres and would buffer bighorns with the berm and tree-plantings. Triumph officials also propose to cut or burn trees adjacent to the housing, which they say would clear, and improve, the foraging area for sheep.
Vail Planning and Environmental Commission hearings in recent months included discussion of additional protective measures, such as a prohibition on worker residents owning dogs – dogs can disrupt bighorns – and restrictions on workers hiking beyond housing units. The developers argue that the heavy, practically unlimited recreational use of thousands of surrounding acres of U.S. Forest Service land plays a far greater role in determining the future of bighorns.
In Colorado, lining up housing that service workers can afford near mountain resorts – including Aspen, Breckenridge, Crested Butte and Telluride – long has loomed as a fundamental challenge. Accommodating workers increasingly has driven developers into delicate wildlife habitat.
Vail officials hired three professional wildlife biologists, seeking guidance before making a decision, which could come in August.
“This is one of the most viewed bighorn herds in the state. The proposed mitigation based on offsite habitat treatments may not be adequate to compensate for both forage loss and impacts of disturbance,” wrote Rick Kahn, one of these consultants, who worked for 32 years as a Colorado wildlife manager, spearheading efforts to monitor bighorns and writing the state’s bighorn sheep management plan.
“I can find absolutely no beneficial effects of this project on bighorn sheep,” Kahn wrote in a July 3 memo to Vail’s sustainability manager. “There will be a net loss of habitat, significant human-related disturbance and the potential impacts of habitat improvement may never be fully realized. .”
Colorado Wildlife Federation director Suzanne O’Neill called developers’ proposed mitigation “quite inadequate” and recommended that wildlife biologists and developers work together more to see if there’s a reasonable chance mitigation measures could offset harm.
“Maybe not. It would take some time,” O’Neill said. “We have to presume that, with our state population expected to double by 2050, we’re going to have more and more of these situations. We’re going to have conflicts between human community needs and important wildlife habitat. We need to look at them case by case early on in the process.”
Vail was incorporated in 1966, four years after the opening of the Vail Ski Resort. The Vail and Eagle County population grew from a few thousand to more than 52,000. State demography officials project 70,000 residents by 2035. This doesn’t include up to 1.3 million visitors a year.
Vail’s strategic plans prioritize “the resort experience,” the economy and “sustainability,” which includes protecting natural habitat, acting town manager Patty McKenny said.
“All of the issues are important – environment and housing. It is a balancing act,” McKenny said. “Vail is at the table to talk about wildlife and the wildlife habitat, and housing is very important. The balancing part is challenging.”
Vail leaders increasingly regard worker housing as economically essential infrastructure that’s “no different than roads and bridges,” said housing department director George Ruther.
“Without it, we aren’t nearly as competitive as we are with it,” he said.