Mountain Town News: A big year for wildlife overpasses in the West |

Mountain Town News: A big year for wildlife overpasses in the West

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

SNOQUALMIE, Wash. – It’s been a big year for wildlife overpasses in the West. Two were completed in Colorado; one is taking shape in Washington state and another in Nevada. More are being planned in British Columbia and possibly in Utah and Wyoming, too.

Near Snoqualmie Pass, about an hour east of Seattle, construction crews recently stacked 39 bars of concrete and rebar, each weighing 40,000 pounds, across the westbound lanes of Interstate 80. With similar bars on the other side, the arch for what will become a forested bridge is now in place.

When all is done in 2018, wildlife funneled into the crossing by fences along I-90 will find a 66-foot-wide crossing topped with soils, trees and other native plants. Ten-foot walls on either side of the bridge will keep out the glare of passing headlights from cars, the Seattle Times notes.

This is part of a bigger project that will ultimately yield 27 places in a 15-mile stretch for wildlife to move to the opposite side of the highway. The work is intended to promote biodiversity and prevent motorists from killing wildlife or being killed in such collisions. It may also help some species tolerate the changing climate.

Some species, particularly large predators and migratory mammals, prefer overpasses, said Charles Raines, director of the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition. “Elk like open. They don’t like stuff above their head,” he told the Times.

Raines said as temperatures rise with the changing climate, some species will need the bridges to migrate.

The Times notes that a more permeable highway may allow wolves to expand their range south of the Interstate. Last spring, about 10 miles away, a wolf was found dead on I-90.

Tony Clevenger of the Western Transportation Institute calls the Snoqualmie project “by far the most ecologically comprehensive mitigation project I’m aware of in North America and likely the world.”

A resident of Canmore, Alberta, near the east entrance to Banff National Park, Clevenger helped design the wildlife overpasses and underpasses of the Trans-Canada Highway between Banff and Lake Louise. A study of wildlife that use the crossing there found that grizzly bears, wolves, moose and deer nearly always chose overpasses to cross the Trans-Canada Highway. Cougars, however, are more comfortable with the wildlife underpasses.

Many wildlife crossings are driven by the goal of keeping large animals off the highways and, ultimately, hoofs off hoods. In other words, the motive is improved highway safety. But crossings in Banff and elsewhere are also created to allow many other creatures free movement.

The crossing being built at Snoqualmie tries to allow movement by many species, some big, but even fish. “They had to consider a lot of creatures, from flying squirrels to pikas to bull trout to the big critters, deer and elk,” says Rob Ament, program manger for road ecology at the Western Transportation Institute in Bozeman, Montana.

Wildlife overpasses are being installed at many places, says Ament, because of accumulated evidence about their effectiveness. Efforts to change driver behavior, such as flashing lights and signs, have proved far less successful.

In Colorado, two overpasses were completed this year across Highway 9 between Silverthorne and Kremmling. The $40-million project will yield five wildlife underpasses, two wildlife overpasses and a widening of the highway’s shoulder to 8 feet, reports the Sky-Hi News. The work there was motivated to end the frequent collisions with deer and motorists

In British Columbia, Parks Canada has announced plans for one wildlife overpass and three wildlife underpasses along the Trans-Canada Highway in Yoho National Park, reports the Calgary Herald.

In Utah, about a mile of wildlife fence is being installed along I-80 near Park City. A spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation tells the Park Record that the agency will soon hire a contractor to begin designing a wildlife overpass.

Nevada is investing significantly in creating structures to allow wildlife, including wild horses, safe movement both over and under highways. It already has a crossing on I-80 near Wendover, and two more are now under construction at Pequop Pass, primarily to allow mule deer to move across the highway without posing a risk. Several more exist on the north-south Highway 93.

In Wyoming, Teton County has allocated $100,000 to study the feasibility of wildlife overpasses and underpasses in Jackson Hole. The money will go to the Western Transportation Institute to develop a plan, reports Planet Jackson Hole.

In these and other cases, high fences along the highways are needed to funnel the wildlife into the overpasses and underpasses. That is also being started in Utah along I-80.

Hotels in Aspen nearly full during September

ASPEN, Colo. – Hotels in Aspen were just as full during September as they are during any of the peak months of winter and summer. Stay Aspen Snowmass reported that paid occupancy for the month was 64 percent in Aspen, an increase from last year’s 57 percent.

This is based on reporting by 76 percent of the total 2,091 short-term rental units in Aspen.

Average daily rates in September were $272 per night, compared to $253 last year for the same month. Presumably, these rates were well below mid-winter or mid-summer rates.

Can anybody put this ski area in the black?

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – Steamboat Springs has two ski areas, the older and smaller one being Howelsen Hill. It’s located a few blocks from downtown. There’s not that much vertical or variety, although it is known far and wide among ski jumpers. It’s in no small way responsible for the prodigious crop of Olympians that has emerged from Steamboat over the years.

But in terms of making money, Howelsen has struggled. Last year, the city subsidized it at a cost of $625,546.

Could a third party do better? That’s what the city is seeking for the 2017–18 season. “We’re seeking somebody who has that proven experience, whether or not they operate a ski area right now, or have operated one in the past,” said Craig Robinson, the manager of the city’s department of parks and open space.

Among the ideas mentioned by Steamboat Today is Intrawest, the operator of the newer and bigger ski area in Steamboat.

Making amends for a dewatered river

FRASER, Colo. – The Fraser River flows past the base of the Winter Park ski area and continues on to join the Colorado River about 20 miles downstream. But the river is much less than it once was. Beginning in 1936, Denver began diverting water through a tunnel underneath the Continental Divide, leaving a much smaller and more shallow river to flow in the same river bed.

This shallowness creates a problem for fish in the Fraser. Even at 8,500 feet in elevation, summer heat can make life uncomfortable, or worse, for fish — trout cannot tolerate temperatures above 70 degrees.

But a collaborative effort called Learning by Doing is embarking on a pilot river restoration project. The goal is to improve the 0.9-mile reach of the river near Fraser to reflect the realities of the reduced flows. Plays and riffles will be engineered into the river segment.

The nearly $200,000 in funding for the restoration work comes from a variety of sources, including Denver Water. Work is expected to occur next summer, reports Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

Herbicide-free in parks of Durango?

DURANGO, Colo. – What about this idea of eliminating herbicides from parks? In Durango, the city agreed to manage eight parks without resorting to chemicals to keep unwanted plants, like dandelions, at bay.

But Cathy Metz, who directs the city’s parks and recreation department, recently told the city council that it’s not working. That’s particularly true in parks with sports fields, which get intense use.

She would like to see the organic-only parks reduced from eight down to two. This goes against the recommendation of a group called Organics Park Durango, which would like to see the number of herbicide and pesticide-free parks increased by another five.

While the council has not decided which way to go, Councilor Sweetie Marbury argued that fields with bare spots pose a safety problem. “It’s not safe for those kids to run on,” she said. Metz told the Durango Herald that broad-leafed plants pose a problem because they collect water and thus are not ideal for sports.

Stick built or modular for affordable housing?

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – Crested Butte is turning to modular units in an effort to deliver the affordable housing that seems to be in such short supply there as well as in virtually every other ski town in North America.

Town planner Michael Yerman says modular units can be delivered at a cost of $200 to $210 per square foot, compared to $250 to $260 per square foot for stick-built units, according to the Crested Butte News.

Town officials hope for a state grant under a “Space to Create” project. A certain number of units would have to be rented to so-called “creatives.” Think of artists, writers, and dancers. But Yerman says the state’s definition of creative is pretty broad.

Science or emotion in national park decisions?

BANFF, Alberta – Which should rule, the heart or the head? That perplexing dichotomy is evident in a disagreement between 12 of Canada’s largest environmental groups and the Canadian federal government over how the national parks should be operated.

The groups say Parks Canada has become too focused on increasing visitation and tourism instead of protecting the ecological integrity of the national parks. Parks Canada, they say, cannot keep up with the increasing visitation of the last few years.

Several specific proposals are being debated, explains the Rocky Mountain Outlook. One of them is the plan to build a 107-kilometre paved bike trail from Jasper to the Columbia Icefield. The hope is to improve cyclists’ safety.

But even though the bike path would run parallel to the existing highway, environmental groups fear the trail will damage caribou and grizzly habitat.

Also in dispute are plans for the Lake Louise ski area, which is located in Banff National Park. The revised plan would allow the resort to expand its capacity from 6,000 skiers and snowboarders today to 11,500 in the future. This would include more ski lifts and trails, plus a new lodge, and an expanded parking lot.

The Association for Mountain Parks Protection & Enjoyment supports these and other expanded uses. “Often, the claims coming from these groups are emotional, and they are not based on scientific evidence” said Casey Peirce, executive director of the pro-tourism organization.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being emotional,” shot back Alison Ronson, executive director of a chapter of Canada Parks and Wilderness Society. “These are supposed to be Canada’s most protected areas, safeguarding nature and wildlife for current and future generations. We should all care about that.”

Parks Canada notes that 97 percent of Jasper National Park and 96 percent of Banff National Park have been declared wilderness, with strong limits on development and use.

Demographic trends of concern in Whistler

WHISTLER, B.C. – Taking a snapshot of Whistler for the year 2013, Vital Signs found a 107 percent increase in the number of Canadian immigrants moving to Whistler. It also found a 19 percent increase in the number of people aged 65 and over.

Both have special needs, especially those immigrants who need to learn English and those older people who will need specialized living arrangements as they age.

But there’s also evidence of a widening gap between those of means and people who are just-getting-by or worse. Prices of condominiums have increased 72 percent in the last five years. The average rent for a two-bedroom unit last year was $2,243, but only 10 percent of the locals can afford such nose-bleed rents.

There are already 6,200 beds in the community restricted to use only by residents, but Pique Newsmagazine suggests it’s not nearly enough. The newspaper advocates that British Columbia should return more of the sales taxes collected in Whistler to the municipality to deal with the impacts of tourism.

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