Elks vs e-bikes. Really.

To the editor,

(The following letter is in response to “Elks vs. E-bikes. Really?” which appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of the Telegraph.)

A recent move by the Trump administration will open millions of acres of public land trails to motorized e-bikes. Publications based on data collected at the USDA Forest Service’s Starkey Experimental Forest and Range near La Grande, Ore., from 2002-04 show how motorized and nonmotorized types of recreation – ATV use, mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking – affect elk.

Mike Wisdom is a research wildlife biologist with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station who worked on the project. His findings provide quantitative evidence about the effects of recreation on elk. In short: hunted populations of elk generally don’t care to be around people, especially people on ATVs and mountain bikes, even during non-hunting seasons.

Elk avoided not only recreationists but also the  trails associated with their activities. Their intolerance (as indicated by the distances they maintained) was highest for ATV riding, followed by mountain biking. To a lesser degree, the elk also avoided hikers and horseback riders. Some people participating in the study reported that they could see elk from the trails. However, telemetry data revealed that the elk that were seen by recreationists represented a small portion of the larger population: most of the elk had retreated far enough to be hidden from view.

Avoiding motors, in particular, takes a toll on elk in two ways: increased energy expenditures and decreased access to food sources. Moving more than necessary and not having enough to eat can be detrimental to the viability of elk populations. For example, if females don’t put on enough body fat, they may not be able to reproduce.

Nearly half (44 percent) of all elk locations detected by telemetry during the recreation activities occurred in the 15 percent of the study area that was farthest from trails. In other words, a large number of elk sought refuge by crowding into a smaller range. “You’ve basically reduced what we call carrying capacity, the number of animals that can make a living on the landscape,” Wisdom says. He calls this “habitat compression.”

This is a form of habitat loss, similar to the well-documented effects of forest roads and traffic on elk and other wildlife. In the words of Kent Ingram, former Sportsmen Representative to Colorado Division of Wildlife Big Game Working Group: “We are finding elk do not tolerate intrusion into their habitat sanctuaries. E-bikes can add yet another new layer of intrusion.”

Today some 98 percent of the lower 48 states is within 1 mile of a motorized route. Ninety-two percent of all national forest lands in Colorado lie within 1 mile of a road, and there are over 17,000 miles of roads in Colorado’s national forests. In the San Juan National Forest, where I hunt elk every fall, motorized road miles increased from 2,817 in the late 1990s to more than 6,400 miles in 2008. How many miles of motorized routes are enough?

“We risk loving places to death and further overwhelming wildlife every time technology advances,” Aaron Kindle, senior manager of western sporting campaigns for the National Wildlife Federation, said. “Management that treats nonmotorized and motorized recreation differently has worked well for quite some time ... e-bikes are motorized vehicles and should be managed as such.”

Some argue that e-bikes help aging folks, like myself (my knees don’t hike/climb/hunt like they used to), experience the outdoors. I accept that there are some things I can no longer can (or never was able to) do but don’t accept that my limitations should be used as an excuse to degrade our wild public lands, waters and wildlife.

As explained by Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers member Jay Gingrich: “With new battery tech, and no enforcement, we will see impacts on wildlife, habitat and the experience we have on trails. What is to prevent more powerful machines from being used on trails? Presently, nonmotorized is simple and reasonable. There are already thousands of miles of roads and trails open to motorized use, including e-bikes.”

For additional information see: Science Findings #219 (U.S. Department of Agriculture-Forest Service): September 2019. www.fs.fed.us/pnw/sciencef/scifi219.pdf

– David Lien, Chairman, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers