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Well-known ski town is in a fight over sheep and affordable housing

In one wealthy ski resort town, sheep and humans are butting heads. It’s a battle between protecting important bighorn habitat and affordable housing.
Posted at 9:12 PM, Jan 17, 2023

Wintertime in the Rockies in Vail, Colorado, doesn’t just draw skiers to the snowy slopes. Just off busy Interstate 70 you’ll find a herd of roughly 100 bighorn sheep — some of the valley’s oldest residents. 

"They've been living on this site long before there was an interstate or a town down here. The sheep know to come here every winter — generations of ‘em," said Trey Milhoan, a member of Vail Bighorn Sheep Initiative.

Milhoan is a local hunting guide and conservationist. He says during the summer the bighorns go up, climbing the steep rocky outcrops and spreading out over a large territory. But in winter the bighorn’s range shrinks dramatically. 

"This tiny little postage stamp of winter ground is all they have left," he said. 

That tiny plot is at the center of a big problem. Like many mountain resort towns, Vail has a housing crisis. 

Jenn Bruno owns an upscale clothing store in the heart of Vail.  

"For a lot of people it means their dream dies quickly. And they leave because they can't find housing," Bruno said. 

She says Vail has plenty of multi-million-dollar vacation homes that sit mostly empty, but not enough places for people who keep the town running. 

"There's less of a local working community in Vail, and that changes a lot of things that you don't notice at first," Bruno said. 

She showed Scripps News a restaurant near her shop. Inside the chairs are stacked and the dishes are still wrapped closed because they can’t hire enough people. 

SCRIPPS NEWS' CLAYTON SANDELL: When people come to Vail and they see a place closed, what message does that send? 

JENN BRUNO: Well first it’s disappointing. But it also sends a message of uncertainty about our community, if we don’t have the people to keep businesses open. 

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Vail Resorts believes it has at least part of a solution. The company proposed building affordable housing for 165 employees. In 2019 the project was approved by the town council. 

But this year the town changed its mind and is now working to kill the project, arguing any housing on this patch of land would threaten the bighorns' survival.   

In a video the town says it produced before the dispute boiled over, wildlife officials say the herd is already declining. 

"We’re nowhere near what historical numbers had been," said Devin Duval, wildlife officer at Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The controversy of sheep versus citizen has the town split. 

"It's been one of the most divisive issues, I think in the history of Vail,"  Bruno said. "My big worry is I'm not sure why we can't save the sheep and help the people in our community."

Vail Resorts is now in a fight with the town, arguing not only is cheaper housing desperately needed, but the town hasn’t stopped luxury homes from being built where bighorns now roam backyards. 

In a letter to the town council, a Vail Resorts executive said, "It appears this issue is less about protecting wildlife and more about preventing affordable housing near the luxury homeowners."

In Vail housing is so scarce that the town holds an actual lottery for hopeful buyers — the prize is a chance at a mortgage. Robyn Smith was one of the lucky ones.  

"If you make less than $200,000 a year in your household, there's a 0% chance that you're going to be able to afford a home in the free market," Smith said. 

Before buying this home, Smith and her husband were paying $3,200 a month in rent alone. 

"It was really dumpy place and the refrigerator didn't work," Smith said. 

She says winning the housing lottery changed everything. 

"It really made our future possible because we're ski folk. We have to live near a ski town town. It was laughter. It was crying, it was shock it — it changed our world," Smith said. 

Just out her window Smith has a clear view of Vail’s housing dilemma. 

"$10 million houses. You will never see a light go on in there. They’re dark 50 weeks out of the year," she continued.

Smith says she appreciates the bighorns, but says if Vail doesn’t build more affordable housing the town’s future could be at stake. 

"It pits people against conservation. And that's as bad for conservation as it is bad for people," Smith said. 

Town council member Pete Seibert says Vail is struggling to close the housing gap and protect the bighorns. 

When the town finishes construction, 144 people will move into this building, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need.

SANDELL: In a perfect world, how many more of these could you use?  

PETE SEIBERT: Boy, I’d take eight or 10.

But Seibert says the Vail Resorts property where the bighorns roam should remain untouched. 

"The bighorn sheep is sort of the crown jewel. We're now at a point where I don't think we can afford to let the balance of that land and that winter habitat go," Seibert said. 

SANDELL: What do you think it would do to this herd to have a development that size right here? 

TREY MILHOAN: I think it could kill them.  There's only so much human interaction, so much development, human presence, recreation, that the sheep will tolerate. This is their home. This is the only home they have. 

Like the mountains in Vail, the battle to find a solution is all uphill, pitting the needs of Vail’s two-legged residents against its four-legged ones.