Mountain News: Reading tea leaves for the ski season 

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO - hefty fine A visitor to Jasper, Alta., was fined $2,500 for feeding local back bears.
  • shutterstock photo
  • hefty fine A visitor to Jasper, Alta., was fined $2,500 for feeding local back bears.

ASPEN, Colo. — Last year about 25 per cent of customers at the Aspen Skiing Co.'s major ski areas, Aspen and Snowmass, were from outside the United States. The Aspen Daily News asks whether the company expects that to continue, given the strong U.S. dollar and the volatility in international financial markets.

They're going to try, of course. The company has long been strong in South America and Australia, but has recently been expanding into China and the Middle East, the Daily News reports.

Foreign guests account for about 12 per cent of skier visits in Colorado, according to Colorado Ski Country USA. Nationally, according to the Kottke end-of-season survey, international visitors were responsible for 6.2 per cent of U.S. visits.

But what role will El Niño play in this upcoming winter? Patrick Byrne, of Ski Country USA, tells the Aspen newspaper that it will produce lots of snow, drawing plenty of visitors.

However, Joe Ramey, general meteorologist with the National Weather Service, tells the Vail Daily that El Niño winters generally bless southern resorts, such as Telluride, more generously. Also, he said, they have big bumps in fall and spring, but a dip in precipitation in mid-winter.

Feeding bears and staring down a lion

JASPER, Alta. — A visitor to Jasper National Park pleaded ignorance when he was fined $2,500 for feeding bears.

The Jasper Fitzhugh reports that the visitor was seen approaching to within 3.5 metres of black bears, including cubs and presumably a sow, despite the warnings from others to keep his distance. He was then witnessed feeding a bear cub sunflower seeds.

Meanwhile, a pair of bicyclists had paused to walk along a river near the park's eastern gate. They joked about needing a big stick. But when one of them tossed a rock into a bush after hearing a rustling sound, a mountain lion jumped out.

"It stopped maybe a metre and a half or two from Sam," said Donald Lauder, a visitor from Australia, referring to his companion, Samantha Leer. "It was just staring at us and hissing."

The Australians hit the cat with the stick and pelted it with rocks. The cat seemed unfazed. This went on for some time. Finally, Lauder threw a rock that grazed the cougar's head, and it vanished into the bush.

"Cougars tend to only vocalize when in a defense situation, protecting kill sites or possibly young," a wildlife specialist with Parks Canada told the Fitzhugh. He visited the site and found no carcass that the lion was trying to protect, suggesting the cat was in a huff about its kittens.

Longer, hotter summers explain beetle epidemics

WINTER PARK, Colo. — Rising temperatures have caused the mountain bark beetles that have plagued forests from British Columbia to New Mexico, right?

Well, not exactly, Jeffry Mitton, who has been studying beetles since 1976, was in Winter Park recently, near the epicenter of the epidemic that in places has killed 80 to 90 per cent of lodgepole pine trees.

Mitton said it's not that the winters haven't been cold enough to pare beetle populations. Instead, he said that spring arrived six to eight weeks early. As a result, the beetles produced two generations each summer.

"Two generations instead of one means that there's an exponential increase in the number of beetles in the forest," Mitton said, according to an account in the Sky-Hi News. "That means there's an exponential increase in the number of trees being attacked."

Beetle attacks on spruce trees of south-central Colorado have recently been expanding, creating scenes at Wolf Creek Pass seen a decade ago around Winter Park. And in the American South, another species of bark beetle has been expanding its range.

"Three species of bark beetles all doing similar things — it's all related to temperatures," Mitton said.

"I really think it's summer temperatures that are hurting them more than the (absence of) winter cold," he said.

Mitton observed that in the last 25 years the mountain bark beetles have climbed 610 metres above their previous range in Colorado, and they have traveled 640 kilometres farther north in Canada.

Epidemics in lodgepole forest typically occur on average every 60 years, he said, but not with precise regularity. He said it's unclear how the warming climate could affect the cycles of bark beetle epidemics in the future.

But according to the Sky-Hi News, Mitton was not appalled by the forests' decimation. Aspen can replace lodgepole stands killed by beetles.

"Yes, it's awful that the trees died," he said. "But hey, that's not so bad."

Forest thinning not a great answer to fires

JACKSON, Wyo. — With wildfires smoking up the skies, residents of Jackson Hole turned out to hear ecologist and author George Wuerthner talk about programs intended to reduce fuels on public lands.

The topic is pertinent, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide, because the Forest Service proposes to thin 1,757 acres of the local national forest and conduct managed burns on another 12,524 acres.

But Wuerthner cautioned foresters against promising too much.

"Don't give a false impression that you're going to have the ability to stop a severe fire," he said. "When (a severe fire) happens, no matter what you've done, it's going to go out the window, I think.

"What you have to emphasize... is how much responsibility is with the homeowners to reduce the flammability of their homes," he said. "Because no matter what you do in that area I think under the right conditions it isn't going to matter." He further said that the data he has examined suggest that prescribed burning works better than thinning to forestall future fires.

Homes built after 2010 within Teton County's wildland-urban interface are required to abide by FireWise building prescriptions, but buildings predating the regulation are exempted.

National park still big enough to get lost in

ESTES PARK, Colo. — There was a birthday party in Rocky Mountain National Park last Friday, reports the Estes Park Trail-Gazette, with a birthday cake, special guests, and everything else you would expect.

The birthday is that of the park itself, established by Congress in early 1915 and then formally dedicated in September of that year.

Among the 1,000 people who showed up for the gaiety was Mark Udall, a former U.S. senator from Colorado whose mother's antecedents had been part of the early history of Estes Park.

"In this park, you have the freedom to get lost. You have the freedom to climb," said Udall, a mountaineer of considerable accomplishment. "One-hundred years is a big effin' deal."

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