Summit County Safe Passages begins campaign to build wildlife crossings on East Vail Pass

Summit County Safe Passages is running a campaign in support of constructing three wildlife crossings just a few miles west of Copper Mountain Resort.
Summit County Safe Passages/Courtesy image

Summit County Safe Passages has officially launched a campaign for new Interstate 70 wildlife crossings on East Vail Pass in an effort to decrease crashes between wildlife and drivers traveling across Colorado.

Just west of Copper Mountain, the large-scale project will feature the construction of three crossings — one overpass and two underpasses — under the westbound lanes. There are currently five large-span bridges serving the eastbound lanes on East Vail Pass.

The overpass planned for construction, which is designed to be hourglass shaped in order to guide large mammals across, has a preliminary cost of $8.5 million. The arch underpass and the bridge underpass expected to be built would cost $3.5 million and $3 million, respectively.

Summit County Safe Passages has received both public and private contributions for the projects, including from local ski areas. In total, the entire project is now estimated to cost $26 million, when including rising costs because of supply chain issues and inflation. 

“The big take-home message is the East Vail Pass wildlife crossings present a really outstanding opportunity to become the nation’s leader in wildlife crossings,” Stefan Ekernas said. “We know that across the state, wildlife crossings are a big problem.”

A portion of Interstate 70 on East Vail Pass is seen on Aug. 29, 2022. The feasibility study has been completed for the construction of three more wildlife crossings on the westbound lanes. Cost is estimated at a total of $26 million.
Eliza Noe/Summit Daily News archive

Every year, it is estimated that accidents between animals and cars cost about $80 million each year in property damage, injuries and fatalities, and over 3,000 of these kinds of crashes are documented in Colorado annually. Another $24 million is lost in recreational opportunities. 

In addition to construction, proposed wildlife fencing is another aspect to the project, costing another few million dollars.

Various large animals live near the area and have been caught on trail cameras, including moose, mountain lions, elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep. Currently, there is already some mitigation to limit risk, including several underpass structures for animal crossings, but only one exists on the westbound lanes.

Just north of Silverthorne on Highway 9, a wildlife crossing overpass was installed toward Kremmling, which has reduced collisions so far. 

Julia Kintsch, board president for Summit County Safe Passages, said that this project is 20 years in the making, and has become a main priority when it comes to reducing collisions on I-70. She added that recent research showed that many animals need about 60 seconds to completely cross safely. A lot of times, though, 10-second gaps can be rare — even in times of little to no traffic. Roads with a volume of over 10,000 cars per day are considered near uncrossable, she said. At that level, animals are not even trying to cross the road anymore. This can impact migration and create other issues. The goal of these crossings would be to reconnect populations who may not have been able to interact. 

“What is it that is so special about this particular place?” Kintsch said. “It is home to the only known breeding population of the federally protected Canada lynx, and it’s also home to a whole variety of species that use this habitat and depend on them.”

Summit County Safe Passages completed the feasibility study for the process. Two overpass options were considered in the study, a traditional angled wall and an hourglass. Overpasses are traditionally more expensive than underpasses, but the study states that this would provide a greater variety of animals to use. It will also be the first hourglass-shaped wildlife crossing in the United States.

At its narrowest, the bridge will be 85 feet wide. As the project moves onto the next phase of project design and National Environmental Policy Act clearance, each location will be analyzed for potential wetland impacts. Preliminary investigation identified multiple wetland areas in the project area, including what is likely a fen. Fens can take thousands of years to form and are a high priority for conservation and restoration. 

“With these new crossings that we’re proposing on East Vail Pass, combined with the existing infrastructure and new crossings being built on the west side of the pass, we have this amazing opportunity to reconnect this landscape,” Kintsch said. 

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