Sheep Mountain Alliance works with various organizations to promote environmental stewardship in the greater Telluride area. (Photo by Skylar Schoemig/Telluride Daily Planet)

Sheep Mountain Alliance (SMA), a local grassroots organization, has proved its commitment to environmental stewardship in the Telluride region and the larger southwest Colorado time and time again over the years. The organization continues to coordinate with local land agencies, as well as state and federal partners, to learn the best regional environmental management practices and how to best maintain wildlife vitality with increased recreation.

In February, SMA partnered with Telluride Institute's Watershed Education Program and Mountain Studies Institute to create a successful “citizen science wildlife monitoring program on the Valley Floor,” SMA community outreach coordinator Mason Osgood said.

He added that with increased “recreational pressures,” maintaining “healthy wildlife habitat corridors” are essential.

“Forest health and wildlife protection are at the core of maintaining a healthy ecosystem in our community public lands,” Osgood said. “We are not the only species that inhabit this landscape and it is important to ensure our wildlife populations enjoy protections against development, recreational and climate change pressure. As the climate changes so do our forests, and by advocating for forest health and development of management practices that ensure this we can do our part in reducing climate change.”

Since 2017, SMA has also been working to revise the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forest Community Conservation Proposal, alongside many environmental partners across the state. The GMUG National Forest covers three forests and 3,161,900 acres of public land, according to the GMUG Forest Plan Revision website. The current forest plan is from 1983 and needs revision since that was a very “different” time for the climate, Osgood said.

The updated proposal will prioritize “wilderness area expansions, public land protections, maintaining of wildlife corridors, reduced timber sales and watershed protections,” Osgood added.

Locally, SMA calls upon the public to comment on the forest plan and works with nearby grassroots organizations, including the women-led Great Old Broads for Wilderness and Paonia-based Western Slope Conservation Center. SMA is currently waiting on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which initially had a 2020 release date that was pushed back to the end of this summer due to the pandemic. EIS is a document that examines the various environmental impacts in each forest plan draft alternative, Osgood said.

After the statement is released, SMA hopes to hold a public community “commenting workshop” for the multi-year GMUG forest revision plan by the end of summer, Osgood added.

“Including the public in this process is an important way to ensure that their voice is heard, even if it is on a small issue. With many public comments that advocate for greater wildlife protections, increased wilderness areas, and smart recreation development, the Forest Service can better gauge how they'll choose their final forest plan,” Osgood said. “The public, especially in the Telluride region, has an intimate knowledge of their local forests and can provide excellent feedback and insight on how their backyard will be managed for years to come.”

Aaron Kimple — who is the forest health program director for Silverton and Durango-based Mountain Studies Institute (MSI), a nonprofit that serves to maintain the social, cultural, natural and economic resources of the nearby San Juan Mountains and a SMA partner on the citizen science wildlife monitoring project –– explained the need for both “short-term and long-term considerations for forest health.”

“Long-term (considerations) include associations with wildfire, insects, and climate change, and involve thinking through how our communities engage with those issues or how those processes influence community values and needs. Short-term includes increased numbers in visitors and impacts of visitors to trails, roads, watersheds, vegetation, and wildlife,” Kimple said. “Both bring forward questions of how people interact with the landscape and the ecosystem and what management practices will best support desired forest conditions, but the context helps us think through what scale and time frame to consider when we think about management practices as well as encouraging the right usage in the right areas of the forest.”

Another SMA project focused on educating the public on forest health was curated by SMA, Telluride Ecology Commission and the Wilkinson Public Library, which hosted a virtual “Forest Health” forum series throughout May. The virtual recordings are still available on the SMA’s website. The educational forum hosted many scientists and policy makers, and spanned a myriad of forest-related health issues, including forest health, fires, insects and mitigation, according to library adult programs specialist Laura Colbert. Colbert added that the number of live forum attendees varied from 23 to 43 participants, and the library will most likely continue to curate a “Forest Health'” forum with SMA in “some form.” Plans for continuing the forum are still up in the air –– Colbert said she is unsure if the forum would take place in zoom or in-person, be a multi-day series or one day program. Assistant professor at Colorado State University and forum speaker Jason Sibold frequents the Wilkinson Public Library each year to provide updates on the condition of our local forests, Colbert added.

Many other local and regional organizations are also leading the charge in contributing additional ways to progress human-wildlife interactions. The United States Forest Service (USFS) deploys team members to Telluride throughout the summer, with the intention of providing “correct information to visitors on our trail networks,” Osgood said.

He added that the Telluride Mountain Club additionally hosts clean up days to ensure unblemished trail systems.

MSI is involved in many initiatives, some independent and some collaborative. One of which includes the collaborative Great Outdoors Colorado-funded San Juan Stewardship Project, which serves to “protect and conserve local public lands and watersheds that are facing unprecedented pressure during the pandemic, by launching a multi-tiered, data-driven approach to engaging visitors to this unique and beautiful landscape,” according to MSI community science director Amanda Kuenzi. She said that MSI has partnered with the San Juan County Sheriff, San Juan Mountains Association, the Silverton Chamber of Commerce, as well as many conservationists, scientists, law enforcement officers and land managers. “The increase in recreation on our local trails has certainly impacted our landscape. I'm very happy with the local response in spreading awareness of trail etiquette, leave no trace ethics, and responsible recreation techniques,” Osgood said. “Our tourism economy may be antithetical to a conservation ethic, but I believe balance is possible through wildlife protections and further education of recreationalists.”

SMA is also working with Spruce Beetle Epidemic Aspen Decline Management Response (SPEADMR) Adaptive Management Group to combat the spruce beetle epidemic. Spruce beetles have been causing devastation to the region at an alarming rate, according to Osgood. SPEADMR formed under the umbrella of GMUG in order to “discuss different management techniques” and “how our region can help prevent devastation,” Osgood added.

“We're happy to be part of the SPEADMR Adaptive Management Group and we provide feedback and comments on the science proposals and help to guide the process in combating the spruce beetle epidemic,” Osgood said.