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Creating a safer crossing for wildlife

CLIFF THOMPSON
Special to the Daily/ Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project The Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project is proposing that a wildlife overpass be built across Interstate 70 on the west side of Vail Pass, similar to this wildlife overpass crosses the Trans Canada Highway near Banff National Park. Studies say the number of animals killed in car collisions has dropped 80 percent.
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VAIL – It’s tough to take a trip over Vail Pass without seeing the mashed remains of animals killed by vehicles.So deadly is busy Interstate 70 to animals that wildlife experts have dubbed it the “Berlin Wall.” Vail Pass bisects a heavily forested area where wildlife travel between the Eagles Nest Wilderness and the Holy Cross Wilderness and beyond. Environmentalists say the highway divides the entire southern and northern Rockies ecosystems.But a new proposal seeks to change that by creating Colorado’s first wildlife overpass near the top of the west side of Vail Pass. Animals seeking to cross the highway would be funneled to crossing points by fences running along the highway from East Vail to near Copper Mountain. Those fences would allow the animals to continue to pass beneath the highway where bridges span creeks.Pushing the proposal are the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project based in Denver and the Wilderness Workshop, based in Carbondale.They are asking for an overpass like two in Alberta, Canada, in Banff National Park that provide land bridges over the Trans-Canada Highway.The project is estimated to cost $4.5 million and the groups are asking for funding from the state’s federal legislators.An overpass would be about 150 feet wide and twice that long and be covered with trees, sod and bushes to mimic the natural landscape.

Between 1993 and 2003, 83 animal collisions were reported between mile marker 176 at the town of Vail and 190 at the top of Vail Pass. Eleven people were injured in such collisions, and the animals killed include coyotes, deer, elk and two lynx, among other animals. The number no doubt is much higher, wildlife officials said, because most wildlife-car collisions go unreported.”This area along I-70 is one of the most critical wildlife connections in the state of Colorado,” said Keith Giezentanner, forest ecologist for the surrounding White River National Forest. “Two lynx mortalities along this stretch of road confirm its use by a threatened species.”Building supportBoth the town of Vail and Eagle County have written letters to Colorado’s congressional delegation supporting the overpass. “The town of Vail is extremely enthusiastic about this project and the benefit it will have for wildlife and the residents and visitors of Vail,” wrote Mayor Rod Slifer. Money for the project could come from a special fund within the Federal Highway Administration, said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop.

The U. S. Forest Service, Colorado Division of Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other groups appear to support the idea of helping wildlife cross the highway safely. The Colorado Department of Transportation’s long-range plans to expand the capacity of the highway also identify the highway as a “wildlife linkage interference zone.” Works elsewhereThe wildlife overpass concept isn’t new – two have been built in Canada’s Banff National Park and in Europe. Where the safe crossing points have been built, such as on the Trans Canada Highway in Alberta, animal-car collisions have been reduced by up to 80 percent, a five-year study reports. Those crossing points include culverts under highways for smaller animals and vegetated overpasses such as that proposed for Vail Pass. But not all animals will use the overpass. Mountain lions and bear, studies show, are more likely to go under the highway below the many elevated stretches of the highway while other animals will use the overpass. Fences from East Vail will funnel animals to safe passage.

Studies will be made of wildlife crossing points using tracking, remote cameras and observers to help determine exactly where the overpass should be built, said Monique DiGiorgio of the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project. The information gathered will also help determine how effective the project has been.”This is going to be a pilot project for the state of Colorado,” she said, adding the structure will be built at or near milepost 188, just two miles west of the top of the pass.A similar but much smaller project to accommodate a mule deer migration route was included when I-70 was built through West Vail in the early 1970s. A fence straddling the highway funnels the animals through a small tunnel under the highway about a mile west of West Vail.If funding for the project is approved, proponents say work could begin in as little as two years. Shoemaker said so far, Rep. Mark Udall, congressman for Summit and Eagle counties, has expressed support for the overpass while remaining members of the state’s congressional delegation have yet to express their opinions.”The more people realize the potential for this project, the more it will help with appropriation,” DiGiorgio said. “We need to increase educational awareness.”Cliff Thompson can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 450, or cthompson@vaildaily.com.


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