Popular North Fruita Desert area sees fewer deer, more bikes

Most February days find the North Fruita Desert Special Recreation Management Area too wet for riding, but this year is an anomaly. A check last week found mountain bikers and campers already using the popular area along 18 Road.

What once was an isolated high-desert area home mostly to mule deer, grazing cattle and the occasional rabbit hunter has become a recreational hot spot for mountain bikers and motorized trail bike users.

A persistent swell in recreational use across the area likely means the wildlife, the hunters and the isolation are things of the past.

The North Fruita Desert Special Recreation Management Area encompasses 72,000 acres of public and private land spread from the Highline Canal north to the Book Cliffs and west from 21 Road to just past Colorado Highway 139.

The greater part of the area is federal land under the eye of the Bureau of Land Management, which attempts to exercise control over this sizeable chunk of sagebrush flats, spare badlands and steep-sided Mancos Shale cliff, with a list of restrictions governing most uses.

Most of the restrictions have to do with travel, the where and how visitors might use each of the 250 miles of designated trails that spiderweb the landscape.

Bikers here, motorcyclists here, horses and hikers over there.

Sometimes trails are shared; other times the trails are user-specific.

A few of the early bike trails were developed illicitly, cut from the desert by thrill-seekers whose idea of the more-desirable connection between two points was down the hill and across the gully, rather than follow an existing trail or road.

Some trails followed old cattle or wildlife tracks, winding erratically across the flats and juniper lowlands but eventually tying into the rest of the trail and road system.

Maybe it’s because of the human presence, but most wildlife you see is the occasional rabbit or maybe a coyote a long way off and rapidly increasing the distance.

The apparent disappearance of mule deer in the area is something that concerns Fruita native Robin Landini, who partly blames it on the rapid growth of recreational use.

“When I was a kid you’d see 100 head of deer out there,” Landini said recently. “I know deer have suffered for a lot of reasons, including coyotes and lions, but when you see groups of 15 to 20 (bikers) going right across those cedar flats, I’ve watched deer go up the face of the Book Cliffs to get away from the pressure.”

The cliffs, which hold little deer habitat and may harbor mountain lions, “isn’t a good place for the deer to be,” Landini concluded.

Cattle still use the area for winter grazing, much to the chagrin of the biking community.

Reverence for historic uses get forgotten when a fresh cow-pie mars your camp kitchen or a herd of cattle tramples the same bike path you’re trying to negotiate in an upright position.

“There’s hardly any wildlife out where the cattle are,” offered Landon Monholland, service manager at Over The Edge Sports in Fruita. “The real issue is cattle grazing. We always joke that the reason we have the Fat Tire Festival is so we can have hundreds of riders smooth the trail out.”

Monholland said he rarely talks to riders about avoiding wildlife because it’s not often any wildlife is seen in the North Fruita Desert.

Most years, by the time riders hit the desert, the deer and elk have moved higher to get away from the heat and gnats.

But this year is an anomaly.

Instead of being too wet to ride, a recent weekend in the North Fruita Desert found temperatures nearing 50 degrees, dry roads and several of the 33 units in the campground occupied with a dozen or more riders on the trails.

“Usually there’s not much activity out here this time of year,” said Paul Creeden, the district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “But it’s been such a dry year, we’re seeing a little more use earlier in the spring.”

Creeden said there hasn’t been a lot of concern voiced about human/wildlife conflicts because of the seasonal separation, but with the planned expansion of trails and expected increase in use, the subject may come up again.

Michelle Bailey, assistant field manager in the BLM’s Grand Junction Field Office, said neither the BLM biologists nor those from Parks and Wildlife expressed any serious concerns during a recent meeting.


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