Steamboat Springs Visitors to the Routt National Forest are being asked to give the elk "a break" in the animal's winter range by voluntarily staying off some trails until spring.
U.S. Forest Service officials placed signs at seven recreational spots in the forest asking people to adhere to a "voluntary closure" of the area and consider entering the public land at a different spot through the winter in hopes of protecting elk herds.
The signs were placed at trailheads at Mad Creek, Hot Springs, Sarvice Creek, Spring Creek, Dry Lake, Coulton Creek and Pearl Lake.
"What we are asking is if people see the sign to please respect it," Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said.
Technically, the trails are not closed to the public. However, Pipher said she hopes people find other places to recreate until springtime for the good of the animals.
"The wildlife are dependent on this for their lives; we just use it to play," she said.
Rob Bringuel, a wildlife biologist for the Forest Service, explained an elk's metabolism changes in the winter to adjust to less food and cooler temperatures. Its energy output and heart rate decreases.
Therefore, anything to cause the animal to burn more energy, such as being spooked by a human presence, can be dangerous because there is not enough food in the winter to support the animal's burning higher amounts of energy.
"Any kind of disturbance to their existence might have an effect on their health," Bringuel said.
In the winter, elk choose south- and southwest-facing ranges in lower elevations to live in. Those places are warmer and have less snow, which makes it easier to find food, move around and keep energy levels at a minimum.
"Most of this critical winter range occurs right in the wildland-urban interface," Bringuel said.
Some critical habitat, for example, is identified just south of the Steamboat Ski Area, where public land meets private land. Another large portion is just east of Elk River Road about 10 miles north of Steamboat Springs.
That poses a bit of a challenge for the Forest Service to ensure that the herd stays unstressed, which justifies educating the public on the dangers of disturbing the animals.
In addition to the voluntary closure signs, signs asking the public to "give big game animals a break" are being placed around the forest. That informs people to stay at least a quarter-mile away from elk or deer if they are spotted.