The new McPhee Overlook trail that will connect Dolores with House Creek will be closed during winter months to accommodate wildlife needs.
The closure is from Dec. 1 to April 15 between Dolores and May Canyon, and from Dec. 1 to May 1 between May Canyon and House Creek campground. During severe winters, officials have the option to extend the Dolores to May Canyon closure to May 1.
The U.S. Forest Service negotiated with Colorado Parks and Wildlife on the closure, which will mostly benefit deer and elk herds that winter in the area.
"It is prime winter habitat and is critically important because it provides necessary food, water, and cover during the coldest months of the year," Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla stated in a letter announcing the closure.
"Mule deer especially need high quality forage to obtain the nutrition they need for successful reproduction."
The timing restrictions will not be placed on other trails in the nearby Boggy Draw trail system because those pine-gambel oak forests are not identified as critical winter habitat.
The nonmotorized Overlook trail will pass through habitat identified in the 2013 San Juan Land and Resource management plan as "winter concentration" areas for mule deer and elk.
Most of the trail has yet to be built, but the overall design is complete. The town of Dolores constructed its section last year from near the People's Cemetery to the top of the mesa.
A GOCO grant paid for a crew from the Southwest Conservation Corp. to install the initial ¾-mile section that has several well-engineered switchbacks. Dolores also negotiated an easement for the trail through a parcel of private property.
The remaining six miles travels through Forest Service land along the mesa overlooking McPhee Reservoir. The area includes archaeological resources, which are being avoided. And as part of the Antiquities Act, the trail layout is being reviewed by the Colorado Historical Preservation Society before construction can begin.
"We expect full-on trail construction to begin in the spring," said forest recreation planner Tom Rice. "This fall some short steep sections will be installed as well."
A Grand Opening is tentatively set for fall 2016. The project will include informational kiosks on McPhee Reservoir and the importance of protecting archaeological sites.
The much-anticipated trail will connect Dolores with 40 miles of nonmotorized trails in the Boggy Draw area, popular with mountain bikers, hikers and horse riders. A section of trail from the House Creek campground to the Bean Canyon trail along the House Creek Road is complete.
The timing restrictions attempt to mitigate an overall decline in mule deer populations in Colorado, Padilla said. Some suspected causes are habitat fragmentation, increased outdoor recreation and dogs.
"Human and dog activity on trails can cause deer and other wildlife to expend energy trying to escape from perceived dangers instead of feeding and resting," Padilla said.
Biologists note that elk enter and leave winter habitat based on snow levels, while deer move on a regular schedule and will use the winter habitat areas regardless of snow conditions.
"Where populations are stressed, closures or restrictions can help to mitigate disturbances and enhance wildlife survival," Padilla said.
The trail construction is being paid for in part by a $105,000 grant from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife State Trails Program.