Changes in the ecosystem

By Olivia Dicks

Crested Butte’s recreational industry rooted in cold winter skiing is beginning to shift towards warm weather mountain biking.

It’s one indication of how climate change impacts are leading to changes in human society. 

Crested Butte used to make money mostly off skiing in the winter. The ski company originally started running lifts in the summer for mountain biking in order to keep winter employees on staff, said John Norton, executive director of the Gunnison-Crested Butte tourism association, and former chief executive officer of the Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

But now, mountain biking in the summer appears increasingly profitable because “we kind of have a mountain bike culture here in the valley,” Norton said. 

Climate change impacts on southern U.S. states are driving the boom. 

As climate warming heats up Texas, Arizona, and other southern U.S. states in the summer, “people have a tendency to want to get out of town,” he said. Colorado summers are staying relatively cool in comparison, drawing people who seek refuge from the heat. 

Those who seek refuge come to Colorado for the biking. “Mountain biking is continuing to grow,” he said. This led to the creation of over 800 miles of mountain bike trails around Colorado. 

The increase in trails can be detrimental to the environment in some ways. The Conservation Corps was established by citizens of Crested Butte to help clean up after new tourists who are inexperienced in the backcountry.

Another group established decades ago to help the environment is the High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA). 

The HCCA’s current main goal is to preserve wildlife in Crested Butte and Gunnison. 

“This community has grown a lot… which means we’re using more resources,” said Sue Navy, president of HCCA’s board and resident of Crested Butte for the past 48 years.

This increase in locals and tourists is having an impact on animals, their migration patterns, and other wildlife in the area, Navy said.

Trails for mountain biking can cut through areas and alter migration patterns for animals, she said.

Animals, people, and ecosystems are being affected by climate change along with precipitation tendencies.

Recently, Colorado has seen “a trend of less snow and more rain,” said David Inouye, the principal investigator at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. His long-term study on plants shows that snowpack and snowmelt affect flowering timing and abundance in Gothic. 

Climate change is affecting flowers and animals making them much less predictable, Inouye said. Plants and animals are changing, but at different times. “The flowers are changing more rapidly than the hummingbird are,” which could affect pollination, Inouye said.  

These changes aren’t happening overnight, though. 68 year old Billy Barr can effects of  changes in climate in Gothic and Crested Butte very clearly because he’s lived there for over forty years. 

Barr has seen many changes. Sage-grouse used to be an abundance in the valley, but they’ve experienced a dwindling population.

He used to easily ski into town from his house at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratories, but now sometimes has to take alternative routes to avoid the changing patterns of avalanches due to precipitation and snowpack changes.

Another change Barr has seen is the ticks. The past two or three years there have been ticks in Gothic because it’s not getting cold enough to kill them off, Barr said. This has also resulted in various cases of West Nile in Colorado. 

All of these changes are having a big effect on the town, but tourists aren’t seeing this. Mountain bikers aren’t noticing that pika are moving to higher elevation, or that the flowers are being affected by frost and snowpack, and they’re not noticing the change in migration patterns of animals. 

With these changes, tourists and new locals “won’t realize what you are missing out” on as things start changing and disappearing, Inouye said.

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