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All is not unanimously positive about the new Chaffee County Outdoor Recreation Management Plan, adopted on July 1, 2021 by the Chaffee County Planning Commission.

The coalition objecting to the plan reads like a who’s-who of entities involved in and leading recreational activity in the county: Salida Mountain Trails, Monarch Mountain, Central Colorado Mountain Riders, the Trails Preservation Alliance, the Colorado Snowmobile Association, Colorado Off-Road Enterprise, Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, and the Colorado Trail Defenders.

These outdoor recreation groups objected to how quickly and non-transparently the rec plan was adopted, and what they call an evident lack of wildlife expertise in those sections of the plan development. Those documents and stances include several sections of the Envision Recreation in Balance Recreation Plan “Wildlife Decision Support Tools for Recreation” and “Protect and Restore Wildlife Habitat.”

Objections to the plan began bubbling immediately after the plan adoption, and not just from recreational groups. While the county and two of the three county municipalities had accepted it, the town of Poncha Springs objected, saying, in part, that their town trails plan was predicated on connecting to some of the major trails, and the new Rec Plan would prevent them from being in control of their own trails plan because it designated wildlife areas near town that would be protected from trail development.

“If this is going to be a document that we are living with if plans across the state are using this wildlife tool from our county — they need to be getting them right and based on the best available science done by the appropriate people,” said President of the Trails Preservation Alliance Chad Hixon. “There’s collaboration but not with everybody.”

The leadership of the Salida Mountain Trails group said they hadn’t even been consulted, and they had put significant energy into the development of some of the county’s premier trails including the major east-west Rainbow Trail along Methodist Mountain.

On  Monday, Aug. 23 the group, led by Hixon, sent a letter to the Chaffee Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) and the Chaffee Planning Commission, as well as state and local agency representatives, expressing grave concerns, and telling the BoCC that they had had an independent peer review of the plan done by Rob Roy Ramey II of  Wildlife Science International of Nederland.

It read:

Dear Commissioners Baker, Felt, and Granzella:

A coalition of local citizens, businesses, groups, and organizations has commissioned a comprehensive independent peer review of the Chaffee County “Wildlife Decision Support Tools for Recreation” (February 20, 2021; hereafter “Tool”) and the “Protect and Restore Wildlife Habitat” portion of the Chaffee County Recreation Management Plan.

Based upon this independent review it has been brought to our attention that there is an abundance of very serious issues and concerns with the Tool document in its current state.  The review has brought forward numerous egregious problems with many of the assumptions used in the Tool, with data and the sources of data, factually incorrect and misleading statements, lack of appropriate expertise, inconsistencies with current CPW policies, objectives, etc., just to name a few.

We must insist that this independent review be carefully and judiciously considered and that corrections and revisions be incorporated into the Tool before any use or reference to the Tool is promulgated.

The independent peer review is available to download as a PDF, and the review can be viewed in its entirety on the TPA website for your examination and consideration.


Chad Hixon
Executive Director

Ramey’s credentials in wildlife biology appear impeccable: with a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University, he was part of a team that pioneered the live-capture of Argali sheep on the Mongolian steppe, the development of non-invasive fecal DNA technology for genetic research on the endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, and the concept of metapopulation management to desert bighorn sheep.

Among Ramey’s 29-page findings:

“The Tool and Plan are based upon a biologically naive and specious assumption … It is apparent to this reviewer, that the authors of the Tool and Plan are unfamiliar with the basics of animal behavior, population biology, and conservation biology … it is assumed that regulating recreation activities will magically result in rebounding wildlife populations in five years.”

The report goes on to say: “This assumption relies on a simplistic, popular belief that recreational activity is currently the primary limiting factor to wildlife populations in Chaffee County while ignoring other natural and human-caused factors that decades of research have shown to have a quantitative effect on population dynamics. Briefly, those factors include: disease, predation, competition, invasive species, hunting, regional climatic variation, wildfire, permanent development, and the effects of density-dependence (i.e., population density feedbacks affect population growth rate).

Ramey pointed out that “Subjective weightings, criteria, and response values are not science,” noting several instances where GIS analysis used as fact in the plan’s tables described as showing recreational impacts on wildlife migration and habitat were “highly subjective”. He went on to explain that Colorado Parks and Wildlife (DPW) expresses their local wildlife population changes (which can vary year-to-year due to harsh winters or drought),  in terms of confidence levels, not in minor percentage point changes (expressed in terms of 95 percent confidence intervals) and “CPW sets their recommended population objectives within a +/-10 percent range of an ideal value and do not seem to be concerned outside of that range unless it is a prolonged trend.”

He raised the role of hunting (which is a recreational activity) in conditioning wildlife to see humans as predators. “The reason is straightforward: in hunted populations, hunters act as predators … if a goal of Chaffee County is to have bighorn or elk populations that react less to benign human recreation, the solution is simple: stop hunting them.”

Ramey points out “The authors of the Tool and Plan make no mention of adaptive management, which is essential to effective management of natural resources. With wolves about to return in number to Colorado through CPW’s reintroduction program, habitat use and population trends of prey species like deer and elk are likely to be affected, making much of the Tool’s habitat mapping obsolete.”

Two county commissioners attended the Chaffee Planning Commission meeting where per county statute, the plan was approved: Commissioners Greg Felt and Keith Baker. The BoCC has yet to take up the matter in a BoCC work session or regular session to decide if a course correction may be needed, but Baker has confirmed that he would like to see it addressed at a future work session.

Hixon, for his part, confirmed that Ramey has indicated he would be happy to meet with the BoCC or the Planning Commission to go over his assessment.

Featured image: Courtesy of National Geographic.