Why Wildcat Mountain Closes
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
A quick explanation as to why we close some of our most beautiful trails for the first three months of each year.
Let’s start with a little Backcountry Wilderness Area history. The 811 acres east of Monarch Boulevard, that we now know as the Wildcat Mountain Trail System, was the first part of the Backcountry that was conveyed to us in 2006. The remainder of the 8,200 acres would come three years later in 2009. In the 10 years before Wildcat Mountain opened, a management plan for the entire property was constructed and completed with the best interests of the property in mind. The management plan outlined that the Wildcat Mountain area was rich in wildlife and habitat including the perfect raptor habitat nesting on the cliffs and the only running water in the entire 8,200 acres of the Backcountry Wilderness Area—a small, spring-fed creek that bisects the 811 acres.
Our desire was to build trails in the Wildcat Mountain area immediately in order to give the community its first piece of the Backcountry Wilderness Area to enjoy sooner rather than later. The first five miles of trails opened right away in 2006, but not without careful thought and consideration to their impact on wildlife.
The chief priority with all Backcountry Wilderness Area projects from the beginning—and continuing to this day—is to minimize impact to habitat and wildlife. When we considered Wildcat Mountain, the location and design of the trails were important. Key wildlife areas and bedding areas were avoided. The all-important creek is crossed once, and the trails quickly move away in order to leave most of the vital riparian corridor undisturbed by humans. Ridgelines were avoided in order to reduce the chance of wildlife seeing humans from a distance.
Second, important rules were put in place. Research shows that dogs, even when on-leash, have a negative impact on wildlife. Therefore dogs are not allowed on Wildcat. But perhaps one of our most important rules that we implemented from the beginning was the winter closure of the entire trail system from January 1st – March 31st. And, here are the three main reasons why.
Don’t Make the Elk Hangry Historically, the Wildcat Mountain area was a winter refuge for large herds of elk. Elk are nomadic during the warmer months, traveling miles in a day with ease. However, once winter hits elk prefer to substantially decrease their activity and park in one area for as long as possible due to food scarcity. Even if the grass and vegetation aren’t buried by snow, what food is available is low in nutrition. Green grass is full of protein and nutrients, but once grass turns brown it loses its nutritional value and caloric value. Elk, and other ungulates like deer, are slowly starving throughout the winter, they are in a caloric deficit and losing body mass. Their strategy of decreasing their activity is to conserve as many calories as possible throughout the long winter.
H2O is Critical The reason the elk herds choose the Wildcat Mountain area during winter is because of the running water. In the warmer months, elk can trek long distances to find a water source. In the winter, they simply cannot. They need to be near water in order to conserve calories and energy. The Wildcat Mountain area offers some of the only unfrozen water nearby in the winter months; a critical habitat for wintering elk and deer.
Nesting Grounds Another important rule put in place upon the opening of the trails in 2006 was that we could close the trails or trail, especially around the cliffs, if nesting raptors were discovered. We knew the cliffs of Wildcat Mountain were a historic Golden Eagle nesting area, dating all the way back to the 1930s. The raptor nesting closure was put in place mainly in case Golden Eagles returned to nest on Wildcat Mountain. Five years after the trails opened, in 2011, we discovered a pair of eagles had returned to Wildcat Mountain to nest. That pair has nested in the Wildcat Mountain cliffs each year since 2011 and has produced eight fledglings over nine years of nesting. To give the eaglets the best chance at survival, the lollipop trail to the top of Wildcat Mountain remains closed even as the other trails open on April 1st. That closure lasts until September 1st each year.
Photo courtesy of Bill Masure
In the ever-changing landscape of our State, as development and recreation continue to encroach on what was once wildlife habitat, entities and landowners like the HRCA cannot depend solely on Federal and State Laws to ensure conservation is a priority. Federal laws like the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act or the Migratory Bird Act lay a foundation of protection along with more focused state wildlife harassment laws. But what is possibly most critical, are the local rules that are in place to minimize impact and protect wildlife and their habitat. Our responsibilities to wild places like the Backcountry Wilderness Area and the wildlife that call it home means there are times when we have to search out a new place to enjoy the outdoors while the local wildlife work to thrive.
We Need Everyone Onboard! We are grateful for the support from the community over the years of the various closures. However, there unfortunately are those that disregard the closures for various reasons. Perhaps they think their one intrusion will not hurt anything, or the closure is too much of an inconvenience. Perhaps they didn’t see the sign (or the locked gate, or barbed wire fence they have to climb over).
The reality is, even one person intruding on the closure is highly impactful. If the elk herd happens to be present, and one human invades their space, the elk herd, instead of remaining bedded down or stationary for the day, must now flee, expending valuable calories and taking one step closer to succumbing to the difficult winter conditions.
This year, the driest year since 2002, has made the winter closure, and the enforcement of it, more important than any year since our trails opened in 2006. Elk and other ungulates are entering the winter with less fat reserves due to less feed being available throughout the year because of drought. We have put up additional signs to bring attention to the reason for the closure. We are hopeful that the additional education as to the importance of the closure will impact the small percentage who typically choose to disregard the rules in place. But if they need additional motivation, many of these signs and many of the typical entrances, for those who choose to disregard the closure will have a motion-activated camera nearby to grab their image.
Let's reserve the photoshoots for our smiling elk and splashing bears on #trailcamtuesday.
Mark Giebel is the director of the Backcountry Wilderness Area. Mark was born and raised right here and is a HRHS (Go Falcons!) alum. He left Colorado for four years to attend Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas but came running back to Colorado as soon as possible. He is a life long lover of all things outdoors, married to the perfect adventure partner, and constantly striving for a healthy mind, body, and soul.