The number of violations for people illegally entering closed wildlife areas was down in the past year, but so too were the number of law enforcement officers and, consequently, patrols to find offenders.
More specifically, the Tres Rios Field Offices had one instead of two rangers patrolling wildlife closures in the 2016-17 season, the Bureau of Land Management wrote in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Every year, the BLM closes areas in La Plata County from Dec. 1 to April 15 to protect critical winter habitat for wildlife. Signs, and in some areas, chain barricades, are placed at trailheads to inform users of the closure.
According to released documents, the BLM issued 13 violations to people for being in the closure area as a result of 13 patrols on Animas City Mountain. Some patrols resulted in more than one violation, while others didn’t result in any.
During the 2015-16 season, 24 patrols on Animas City Mountain resulted in 19 groups receiving a violation. In some cases, rangers issued only one citation to a member in the group, rather than issuing everyone in the group a citation.
Other areas, such as Big Canyon and Sale Barn, are also patrolled, but law enforcement tends to focus more heavily on Animas City Mountain.
“Historically, violations of the Winter Wildlife Closure have been higher in the Animas City Mountain area, as such, the majority of patrol time was focused in that area,” the BLM wrote in response to The Durango Herald’s open-records request.
Rangers will spend 4 to 6 hours for each patrol on Animas City Mountain, whereas up to an hour is spent in Big Canyon and Sale Barn. No people were contacted during 11 patrols in Big Canyon and 12 patrols in Sale Barn.
The BLM redacted the names of those who received citations.
The first violation at Animas City Mountain was recorded at 12:20 p.m. Jan. 22 when a 54-year-old man and a female companion entered the closed area through the West Trail, which was blocked with a chain, snow fencing and had closure signs.
Both individuals said they did not read the signs. Only the male was issued a ticket, which carried a $280 fine.
Three incidents were recorded from March 11 to March 12, when three people said they entered Animas City Mountain without using a trailhead, and, therefore, did not see closure signs.
On March 30, a 31-year-old woman admitted seeing the closure and “ducking under the barricade to enter the closed area.”
Around 3:30 p.m. April 6, a 35-year-old male said he knew the area was closed but “decided to risk entering the area.”
And again on April 6, just 30 minutes later, five males, ages 18 to 20, said they did not pay attention to the signs or barricades. Each person was written a citation.
According to information released in the FOIA request, as of April 27, eight of the violations have either been paid or the defendant appeared in court. The remaining six violations were not paid and were scheduled for later court hearings.
The BLM, in a November news release, said the closures in lower elevations are necessary to protect foraging habitat for deer and elk, which must conserve energy to survive in the winter.
“When animals flee due to disturbances caused by people, calories are used that are needed to survive through the rest of the winter,” the BLM wrote. “Pregnant deer and elk are particularly sensitive to disturbances, and stand a better chance of survival when the habitat is free of interactions with humans and pets. The closure areas prohibit all public access until conditions allow for wildlife to move back to higher elevations.”
In total, the BLM conducted 36 patrols this past season. Last year, that number hit 81 patrols, resulting in 64 people and 27 groups being contacted. Some were issued warnings.
However, Shannon Borders, a spokeswoman for the BLM’s Tres Rios Office, said law enforcement officers will be out in full force next closure season.
“We recently filled our law enforcement officer position,” Borders said. “So we should be back to regular schedule next winter.”