While the summer heat tends to keep many visitors away from Moab, at least one group of neotropical tourists may be back in the area for the season – perhaps to the consternation of some city officials.
The potential presence of the western yellow-billed cuckoo along lower Pack Creek has led to a delay in the city’s plans to rebuild a bicycle and pedestrian trail and bridge that ties the neighborhoods west of the creek to the city center.
For three decades or so, scientists and others could not agree whether the species are distinct from the more common eastern yellow-billed cuckoo. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put that dispute to rest in 2014 and listed the bird as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The slender and long-tailed bird, which is known for its distinctive – and loud – “kowlp” calls, spends the nesting season in willow and riparian forests west of the Continental Divide. However, habitat loss and degradation throughout much of its historic range – especially in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia – have led to sharp declines in its populations.
City officials first learned of the bird’s potential presence in the riparian woodlands off 200 South after they filed a stream alteration permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which triggered a Fish and Wildlife Service review.
Moab City Manager David Everitt said they haven’t formally confirmed any sightings of the bird to date. Still, they agreed to postpone any construction work until the nesting season has officially ended in September, and any cuckoos have migrated to their wintering grounds in Mexico.
While the project is on hold for the time being, at least one local couple are hoping that the delay will force city officials to rethink their plans for the size and scope of the project.
Lee and Miki Bridgers have raised concerns about the potential impacts that a new bike and pedestrian bridge could have in terms of flooding, increased traffic, liability and cycling accidents. But lately, their criticisms of the project have expanded to include the potential impacts it could have on the western yellow-billed cuckoo and other wildlife.
“If they put the bridge in here, it will disrupt this wonderful wildlife area,” Lee Bridgers said.
“It’s one of the last remaining sanctuaries for birds and wildlife,” Miki Bridgers said. “It’s quite an incredible ecosystem here.”
The trail begins just beyond the Bridgers’ home and Dreamride business on 200 South. It’s located along a city-owned right-of-way that ensures public access through the corridor, and Everitt said that the established route was once a popular pathway for cyclists and pedestrians alike.
“It’s always been a pretty well-used east-west connection,” he said. “It’s really been a bridge for residents.”
Former Grand County Trail Mix chair Sandy Freethey agreed.
“I’d say it’s a very important trail,” Freethey said. “It gets a lot of neighborhood use.”
City officials closed the trail during former Moab City Manager’s Rebecca Davidson’s administration, when a child reportedly fell off the old, rail-free bridge and broke her arm, according to Freethey and others. Today, a narrow wooden plank that juts across Pack Creek is all that connects the Kane Creek Boulevard side of the trail with the east entrance on 200 South, and while people still walk through the area, visitors are fewer and farther between.
In the time since the bridge was removed, the Bridgers said that the area has become a haven for wildlife, from deer to foxes and mountain lions.
“When the bridge was open and the trail was open, the deer were much more shy around here,” Lee Bridgers said. “Now, I can just see them booking down here … It doesn’t take long for it to get like Africa down here.”
For as long as they’ve owned their property on 200 South, the Bridgers said they’ve heard the unique calls of the secretive bird species that nests each summer in the riparian forests along Pack Creek. Until recently, though, they had no idea that the birds they’ve been listening to the ones that are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Lee Bridgers said the couple hear it some time between 4:15 and 4:28 a.m. every morning during the warmer months of the year.
“It’s the sweetest alarm clock in the morning,” he said. “Every morning, it’s like a symphony. It’s amazing … Other birds pick up the cadence of their call and answer – they’re kind of like the dominant songster out here.”
While Everitt said that city officials haven’t heard those calls for themselves, their past experiences on other construction projects have taught them a thing or two about the western yellow-billed cuckoo.
When they were in the preliminary stages of work to build a new regional wastewater treatment plant off 400 North, they were informed that the birds might establish a presence on the property during the nesting season. In that instance, Everitt said, city officials said they never actually logged any confirmed sightings of the species.
In this case, since they plan to work with heavy machinery to modify the streambed and build the bridge, Everitt said that some trees and vegetation will have to be removed. However, they will be planting new vegetation in the area under the guidance of landscape consultant Kara Dohrenwend, although Everitt acknowledged that the process to recover from that disturbance could take some time.
Still, he said, the work is expected to have minimal impacts on the surroundings due to its tiny geographic footprint.
“This is a small project,” Everitt said. “We’re not paving the trail or anything like that.”
The city’s objective, he said, is not to make the 200 South entrance a trailhead where people can park and then ride off to some other destination.
“I don’t think it’s a tourist attraction,” Everitt said.
Grand County Trail Mix trails coordinator Scott Escott said he sees three big advantages to a restored trail off 200 South.
For one thing, he said, it would be a boon to residents who live in the Mountain View subdivision. The same benefit holds true for local students who could walk or bike along a safer route to their schools, he said.
Finally, it may offer visitors improved access to the Amasa Back trail system and other spots off Kane Creek Boulevard.
“That will be a nice connector for people who are staying in town (at hotels),” Escott said.
Bridgers cautioned that the city’s plans to install a larger bridge in a flood-prone area may create more hazards. Instead, he suggested that the city should install a smaller structure that can be easily replaced in the event of future flood damage.
“Because of the flood issue, I think they should look at it as a temporary issue and do it like it was before,” he said.
He’s further concerned about the potential for liability-related issues, as more and more trespassers veer onto his property. Accidents are another worry – one he’s shared with Moab City Parks, Trails and Recreation Director Tif Miller, citing numerous instances where the couple have witnessed children falling off their bikes.
“I was telling Tif, every time I see a little kid go down there, my stomach turns upside down,” he said.
Everitt said that city officials are trying to be receptive to Bridgers’ suggestions, and will take them to heart, if possible.
“We’ll continue to work with him if he wants to work with us on some of the design and location issues,” he said.
Everitt said that city officials will take the same approach toward cooperative efforts to prevent trespassers from venturing onto the Bridgers’ property
“We can deal with that to the degree that’s reasonable with signage,” he said.
“We don’t want to create unintended consequences for the property owners,” he added. “But we also have to balance the fact that that’s an important link for trail users.”
Neighbors want city to downsize scale of project off 200 South