"It's just the elk winter range."

By Amy Hadden Marsh

Sopris Sun Correspondent

The Garfield County commissioners (BOCC) met for more than eight hours on Monday, Nov. 13, with only 20 minutes for lunch. The morning agenda included discretionary grant awards and new requests, approval of a private airplane hangar project at the Garfield County Airport, rate increases at the county landfill and a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) update on northwestern Colorado elk herds. Two public hearings in the afternoon about the Flying M Ranch PUD and Garfield County Public Library District (GCPLD) issues began at noon and ended just after 5pm. More than 60 people filled the meeting room in the afternoon to comment on either the PUD or the library issues. 

CPW terrestrial biologist Julie Mao reported on four Colorado elk herds, or what CPW calls data analysis units (DAUs), that overlap in Garfield County:  E-6 (White River), E-14 (Grand Mesa), E-15 (Avalanche Creek), and E-16 (Frying Pan River). Mao’s short ungulate history lesson included the fact that elk were once over hunted in the Valley and subsequently reintroduced a century ago. “These elk were brought in from Yellowstone and released up in Hunter Creek,” she explained. 

CPW’s current objective for elk population numbers is to maintain the status quo. Mao emphasized that the animals are stressed by habitat fragmentation caused by drought, recreation, and energy and housing development. She said that oil and gas activity and solar farms cause habitat loss and fragmentation. “Because [solar farms] need to be fenced off, for elk, and other wildlife larger than a mouse or rabbit, those areas are effectively a complete loss of habitat,” she explained. Exurban housing development has increased, which means more humans encroaching on what was once the dominion of the wapiti. 

Outdoor recreation has also changed wildlife habitat. “Given that the landscape is pretty carved up with roads and trails, that highlights the importance of things like seasonal closures to minimize impacts on animals when they’re at their most vulnerable during winter and calving times,” said Mao.

Calf recruitment — the ability for young to survive their first year — has declined as has the cow/calf ratio. Mao said that in the ‘80s, the cow/calf ratio was 60 calves per 100 cows. Now, in the Avalanche Creek and Frying Pan herds, that ratio is 30/100.

Mao stated that development in elk winter range is having a detrimental effect on the ungulates since most of the lower elevation land in these DAUs is private. Too many hunters or “hunter crowding” has been a problem during archery season on the Grand Mesa. CPW has been cutting back antler-less and cow tags in efforts to increase those populations. The agency is also in the midst of conducting a multi-year study on cow/calf ratios. 

Commissioner Mike Samson expressed dismay about dwindling herds and the added burden of wolf reintroduction. ”I think that highlights the importance of preserving and trying to maintain the integrity of what’s remaining of the habitat,” he said. 

Flying M Ranch

Speaking of development, the BOCC voted to deny the Flying M Ranch PUD. The project would have added 144 townhomes and eight single-family homes to the county’s housing market but Samson and Commission Chair John Martin voted it down. Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, who lives near the proposed development, cast the only favorable vote, stating that he thought it was a huge mistake on the board’s part to deny the application and reminding Samson about the upcoming election year.  

In a daring move that he said would no doubt make headlines, Martin stated, “We have too many people within this area and the doors need to close.” He added, “It’s either die, get out of the way and let the world take over, or put your stick in the ground and say ‘no more.’”  He compared Glenwood Springs to more populated areas in the state.  “We are now Breckenridge or Aurora, because I see the same buildings in Aurora as I do in Glenwood Springs,” he said. “I don’t want to see that anymore.” 


The afternoon session also saw continued contention around GCPLD issues. First, the BOCC denied Rifle resident Hanna Arauza’s application for the Rifle representative vacancy on the library board of trustees. 

It remains unclear if the BOCC’s decision is final. The Sopris Sun has stated that “the library board can still appoint someone despite disapproval from the commissioners” (Garco Report, Oct  18) but in a Nov. 14 email, Jamie LaRue, GCPLD’s executive director, told The Sun that the library cannot appoint Arauza over the BOCC’s decision. “If the County Commissioners had taken NO action, Hanna would have been automatically appointed after 60 days,” he wrote. “But since they voted against her — a first, I’m told, since the founding of the district — that seems to deny her the position.” The Sun will continue to investigate this further.

The BOCC also passed a resolution disapproving the library board’s policy regarding two Japanese manga books at the Silt Library. The resolution is not legally-binding. “I want to make sure that the public knows that the BOCC are not asking to ban any books,” said Martin. “We’re not trying to censor anyone.”

Public discussion about these books has been ongoing for months and does not show any signs of stopping. Opponents and supporters of the library’s policy were on hand at Monday’s meeting, repeating the same concerns. Some opponents, including Robin Pruett, stated that they might apply for the Rifle vacancy on the library board.