Summit community explores new wildlife crossings to improve driver safety, wildlife movement

Vehicles pass under the wildlife passage on Highway 9 Tuesday June 18, 2019, near Heeney.
Hugh Carey /

The roads built in the mountains have done much to connect human communities across the Continental Divide. However, those same roads wind up fragmenting wildlife habitat, cutting off access to food and water, and disrupting migration patterns.

As traffic continues to grow in the High Country, human-wildlife collisions also have become more common and more dangerous. Colorado sees an average of 3,600 reported accidents with wildlife every year, with 266 accidents resulting in human injuries. The overall cost from these accidents is about $66.4 million annually, and that does not account for the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 annual wildlife accidents never reported.

Realizing the urgency of the problem, a large coalition of government, non-profit and corporate entities including Summit County set out two years ago to come up with a way to balance the needs of wildlife in their own habitat and humans who live, play and travel in the mountains.

At the Summit Board of County Commissioners regular work session Tuesday morning, the commissioners were given an update on the county’s wildlife Safe Passages plan.

Summit County Safe Passages now seeks the commissioners’ endorsement of the plan, giving it the county’s blessing and ensuring progress toward designing and building the crossings.

Julia Kintsch, with environmental consulting firm ECO-Resolutions, and Ashley Nettles, from the U.S Forest Service, represented the Summit County Safe Passages group tasked with identifying potential areas for wildlife crossings. The nonprofit is made up of private, nonprofit and government stakeholders concerned about the issue.

The presentation began by illustrating the efficacy of wildlife crossings. After Grand County built wildlife crossings along Colorado Highway 9 in 2015, there have been more than 45,000 successful mule deer passages through or over crossing structures.

At the moment, the crossings pick up 97% of wildlife traffic, vastly reducing the number of animals encountered on those stretches of roads. Over the past five years, the average number of animal carcasses found after a vehicle collision dropped from 56 to six annually.

Looking to reproduce those successes in Summit County, the Safe Passages group has been working to identify areas that could use a wildlife crossing. Priority areas include those where connectivity is critical to local wildlife, where there is a lot of wildlife traffic across roads and areas used by threatened or endangered species.

In total, the group identified 17 “wildlife linkages” across the county that would help create connections between areas previously cut off by roads. The group also identified three specific linkages of high priority it recommends be protected and built up in the near term.

The first of the recommended wildlife crossings would be constructed on Highway 9 north of Silverthorne and south of Green Mountain Reservoir. This wildlife linkage would provide important year-round habitat for elk, mule deer and moose. Mountain lions and black bears also are common. The crossing is supported by Friends of the Lower Blue River and the Lower Blue River Planning Commission.

The second crossing is recommended near the Upper Blue River on Highway 9 between Breckenridge and Blue River. This linkage provides important habitat for moose, mule deer and elk. Increasing residential development and high traffic makes this linkage particularly critical for the viability of wildlife in the area. Aside from the town of Breckenridge, the Continental Divide Land Trust and Breckenridge Ski Resort also will be involved in planning a potential crossing.

Finally, the third recommended wildlife crossing would be built across or under Interstate 70 from Copper Mountain to the top of Vail Pass. That wildlife linkage provides habitat for elk, mule deer, moose and a breeding population of Canada lynx — one of the only breeding populations in the state outside of southwest Colorado.

Wildlife advocacy nonprofit Rocky Mountain Wild, the Colorado Department of Transportation, Denver Zoo, Friends of Dillon Ranger District, Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness and other partners will work together on planning this crossing.

Summit County Safe Passages now seeks the commissioners’ endorsement of the plan, giving it the county’s blessing and ensuring progress toward designing and building the crossings.

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