A stretch of highway popular with Colorado outdoor enthusiasts doubles as a major travel corridor for wildlife.
The mix of high-speed traffic and wildlife crossings is a dangerous one along Highway 9, wildlife officials said. For that reason, the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife is asking the public to support the Highway 9 Safety Project.
The project includes the construction of wildlife overpasses and underpasses designed to help reduce vehicle-wildlife collisions along a 10.6-mile stretch of road in Grand County between the Green Mountain Reservoir and the Colorado River.
“Anybody who’s driven on Colorado roads for any length of time knows we have an abundance of wildlife in the state,” said Mike Porras, a Parks and Wildlife information officer. “While we always encourage drivers to do what they can to avoid colliding with wildlife, we really hope to see these crossings come to fruition.”
The Colorado Department of Transportation reports that wildlife in the area have been involved in almost 600 accidents in the past 20 years, resulting in 16 fatalities and about 200 injuries. Nearly 450 animals were killed in the past eight years.
“It’s an important project for the health and safety of people who live and work in Colorado and for our wildlife as well,” Porras said.
The popularity of the road makes the project even more important, officials said.
“It is a highly traveled stretch of highway,” Porras said. “Because there are so many things to do in the northwest part of the state, many Coloradans will use this road at some point.”
Transportation officials estimate that 3,600 vehicles, including 290 trucks, travel on Hwy. 9 daily — and the number of vehicles is only expected to rise. Many of these travelers are headed to hunting, angling, skiing and sightseeing destinations in northwestern Colorado.
Individuals from Grand, Summit and Jackson counties formed Citizens for a Safe Highway 9, a group that is working to secure financial support from anyone who uses the highway.
Mike Ritschard became involved in the project after his parents were involved in a fatal crash on the highway.
“We have a unique opportunity here to improve a section of road for the traveling public,” he said.
Safety improvements to be made on the highway between mile markers 126 and 137 include widening shoulders, improving roadway alignment to bring it up to current design standards, straightening severe roadway curves, flattening steep hills that limit drivers’ distance vision and making access improvements. The plan also calls for the construction of two overpasses and five underpasses designed specifically for wildlife. They would be the first of their kind in Colorado.
“When you take wildlife away from the highway, you won’t have to worry about them jumping out in front of you,” Ritschard said.
Parks and Wildlife personnel from the Hot Sulphur Springs office provided significant design input to the project, including the location of wildlife crossings and the look of wildlife-specific fencing along the roadside.
“They (crossings) will allow animals to travel safely above or below” the roadway, said Lyle Sidener, Parks and Wildlife manager in Hot Sulphur Springs, in a news release.
Similar crossings have been built in Wyoming, Florida and California and internationally with reported success. But funding for the $46 million project north of Summit County remains a hurdle.
“It’s a great idea whose time has come in Colorado,” Sidenar said. “But to make it happen we will need statewide support.”
Citizens for a Safe Highway 9 is raising funds for the project. Ritschard said the deadline to raise funds for the remaining balance is June 17. He urged drivers to donate and to send letters of support as soon as possible.
A pledge form can be found online at www.bit.ly/grandcountypledge.
Anybody who’s driven on Colorado roads for any length of time knows we have an abundance of wildlife in the state