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Vail Pass wildlife feature a poster child for excess?

ALLEN BEST
SPECIAL TO THE DAILY

VAIL PASS ” In 1999, a Canadian lynx from among the first transplanted batch of reintroduced release into Colorado was squashed on Interstate 70 near Vail Pass, and three more have subsequently died on the same highway between Vail and Denver. As well, in 2003, the first wolf verified in Colorado in 60 years was also killed on I-70, near Idaho Springs.

The deaths of the wolf and lynx, both of them of endangered species, seemed to verify what wildlife biologists had long been saying, that I-70 had become a Berlin Wall to wildlife. Even before these deaths, the biologists had been working to get structures, called wildlife overpasses, installed across I-70 and other highways.

In response, Congress in 2005 approved something called a congressional spending earmark. Planning of a wildlife overpass west of the pass, near where the lynx died, has been allocated $420,000. The model for such overpasses is in Alberta’s Banff National Park, where activists are working to preserve remnant populations of grizzly bears and wolves, as well as the more plentiful elk, moose, and black bears.

But that Congressional earmark, reports the Wall Street Journal, was opposed by Colorado’s highway boss, Tom Norton, who believes wildlife can be protected at less cost. “Earmarks make my life miserable,” he groused.

The Journal made the overpass the centerpieces for the argument against earmarks, which have become more popular in recent years. Such earmarks made up 4 percent of the roughly $1 trillion that Congress allocated in the 2005 fiscal year. Last year’s transportation authorization also included a $223 million earmark for a bridge to a sparsely populated Alaskan island. The new Democratic majority in Congress has pledged to diminish use of earmarks, as a way to rein in the burgeoning federal budget.

Norton seemed to be saying that if the federal money was not earmarked, he could use it for building highways. Colorado is notoriously pressed to build highways fast enough to keep up with population growth and steadily increasing driving by people, something measured statistically as vehicle-miles-traveled per capita.

But the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project, an advocacy group that lobbied Congress for the earmark, says the Journal got the story at least partly wrong. The wildlife overpass budget came from a separate pot of money, not directly from Colorado’s allocation for transportation, said the group’s executive director, Monique DiGiorgio. She also points out that if I-70 is to be expanded, it must mitigate effects to wildlife. This is merely an early-action plan.

Too, while Norton said he thought fences and small underpasses would serve the same purpose at less expense than the football-field-wide wildlife overpasses, wildlife biologists dispute that solution as ineffectual for a variety of reasons.


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