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Fish and Game Opposes Further Foothills Trails on Wildlife Worries

Trail of Travails


On a chilly evening in November, the Ridge to Rivers trail partnership opened the Boise Train Depot for a public meeting that would help shape the 10-year management plan for the city's foothills and open spaces.

More than 60 people gathered around tables blanketed in maps showing off the 190 miles of trails winding throughout the foothills. Those trails, which stretch from Highway 55 to Highway 21, are managed by a collaboration between the city of Boise, Ada County, the Bureau of Land Management, the Boise National Forest and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Again and again, trail users asked for the same thing: trail connectivity, and specifically for those who live in Harris Ranch and Barber Valley, who want more trails that will connect to the larger system, such as Table Rock and Military Reserve.

As more subdivisions are added to the area, the city is feeling the pressure to do just that.

"As a public servant, my job is to represent the interest of the citizens who support the open space and trails they love so dearly," said Sara Arkle, Foothills and Open Space manager for the city. "But there are impacts to migrating herds associated with recreation, so it's my job to find balance."

Meanwhile, it's Krista Muller's job to stop building future trails in that area. As a wildlife biologist for Fish and Game, it's a mandate she takes seriously—she's protecting the Boise River Wildlife Management Area, which covers 47,000 acres of the foothills north of Highway 21.

The management area is one of the last winter ranges in this part of the state, according to Muller. Up to 8,000 mule deer and their fawns, as well as elk, pronghorn, hawks, songbirds, mice, voles, snakes, bobcats, fox, coyotes, quail, chukar and partridge use it year round, but especially when the snow gets too deep in higher elevations.

"As soon as the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, they start migrating down," Muller said. "Deer can't get to food once there's a foot of snow on the ground. If you're a deer and you've got these wobbly legs and you're in a couple of inches of snow, running away from a predator with a fawn, it's pretty tough."

Muller said the last few years have been mild winters, making life easier for deer. Survival rates stayed around 98 percent.

"But when it changes like this, it takes a lot more out of those animals to survive," she said. "Then you add things like recreationalists out there, hiking, walking their dogs. I've already had issues with drones this winter, flying over and harassing them. When you add that on top of their normal challenges of trying to feed and stay warm, you see a decline in their survival rate."

Because of that, Fish and Game refuses to let any new trails be built in the area Barber Valley residents hope to use. Muller said trails and roads fragment the landscape for wildlife. Deer will give a 200-yard buffer to a trail, rarely wanting to cross it. When they're trying to get down to Lucky Peak Reservoir and more southern rangelands, it causes problems.

"It's a gauntlet for them," she said.

Muller added it's crucial Fish and Game be part of the Ridge to Rivers partnership to address these more difficult questions. While the U.S. Forest Service, BLM and the city have a mission to provide recreational opportunities to residents, Fish and Game doesn't share that goal.

"Things like connectivity for mountain bikes and hiking—it's not our mission," she said. "That deters from what our mission is. When you think about wildlife, you want property that is large and uninterrupted. When you start adding that kind of connectivity for homeowners and development, you fragment the land and that is detrimental to wildlife."

Recreationalists are allowed on Boise River Wildlife Management Area property, but dogs must be on-leash and users have to keep to specified roads and trails. The program is paid for through hunters' licenses and tags, as well as a small cut from ammunition sales in the state. People can hunt on the property before the winter grows too harsh.

Muller has recommended a seasonal closure for the area, possibly running from November through April, but it's something Fish and Game hasn't decided on yet.

"At this point, with all the development and the number of people moving into the area, it needs to be highly considered," she said. "I have one enforcement officer for 1.5 million acres. Having a closure to protect wildlife is something I would really like to see in the future."

Arkle understands where Muller is coming from, and she said most people who live in Boise and appreciate the foothills understand, too.

"We consistently hear from citizens that wildlife habitat and experiences are equally important to them when it comes down to recreation versus wildlife needs," she said.

Because Fish and Game forbids adding trail connectivity, Arkle said Ridge to Rivers will just need to get more "creative" when it comes to linking trails together for those who live in the Barber Valley. She said utilizing the Boise Greenbelt or new bike lanes could help.

"Everybody is going to have to give a little," Arkle said. "Everyone wants to continue to enjoy both the hunting and wildlife viewing, and the question is going to be, 'how do we do that as we continue to grow?'"