The U.S. Forest Service is asking people to stay off popular lower-elevation trails to give wintering elk and deer herds some peace and quiet.
Because elk move from higher elevations to lower elevations to find food during the winter, a high volume of traffic on trails close to town can affect their habitat.
"A lot of these areas are on the fringe of the forest where trail heads start and where there are some access roads," said Forest Service Wildlife Biologist Technician Jason Szyba.
The Forest Service will post signs on the trailheads that affect winter elk habitat and ask people not to use those areas for recreation from Dec. 1 to April 30.
Szyba said it is not just motorized activities that disturb elk, but also snowshoers, skiers, hikers and dogs. If recreationists do encounter an elk, Szyba recommended that they keep at least a quarter-mile away from the animal.
Human contact with deer and elk contribute to the winter kill rates and can have a detrimental effect on female animals carrying offspring, Szyba said. It also can force animals onto private land, where they cause damage to haystacks, or to higher elevations, where it is harder to find food.
In the winter, the metabolism, heart rate and breathing of the animals drop to compensate for lack of food, making them more vulnerable to human encounters.
"In essence, we are the predator," Forest Service Wildlife Biologist Melissa Miller said. "Mostly, the concern comes from snow depths. They can't move through the snow easily when they become frightened, and they expend all of their energy to flee. They have saved up all summer long and into the fall energy resources, and because of the snow, they can lose all of that rather quickly."
The Forest Service is posting courtesy closures for seven trails: Spring Creek, Lower Bear Trail, Hot Springs Trail, Mad Creek Trail, Red Dirt Trail, Greenville Mine Road and Coulton Creek Trail. The Forest Service is requesting that people avoid areas to the south of Steamboat Ski Area.
Elk herds in those areas range from 50 to 450 animals. The Red Dirt and Mad Creek trails are closest to the largest herds, which have 350 to 450 head. The Hot Springs Trail area has about 200 to 300 head of elk, and the Spring Creek area has between 100 and 150 elk.
In the southern part of the county, Miller said people should try to avoid the Silver Creek Trail, which is off of Routt County Road 18, and the Service Creek Trail, which is off of C.R. 16.
The trails have become increasingly popular during the winter, Szyba said. Last year, the Forest Service conducted winter counts on the trails and found that an average of 10 people a day used the Mad Creek trails, and about 10 people a week used the Spring Creek Trail beyond the city limits.
"The number of people using these trailheads is why we have this concern about deer and elk," said Forest Service Public Affairs Specialist Diane Ritschard.
In South Routt, Miller said human traffic disturbing elk herds was not a concern two or three years ago.
"Now, there is so much development in the Stagecoach area, it is starting to be used more," she said.
Forest Service officials said there are other areas where elk and human encounters are less frequent and advised people to go to the Buffalo Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass areas, the South Fork of the Elk River with parking at the Hinman parking area and the Hahn's Peak Lake area, accessible by Forest Service Road 486 and F.S.R. 488. The areas are in higher elevations that receive more snowfall.