Colorado’s wildlife crossings save lives — officials say they need your help to build more | AspenTimes.com
Jack Queen
Summit Daily

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Colorado’s wildlife crossings save lives — officials say they need your help to build more

Drivers in Colorado killed nearly 7,000 wild animals last year, resulting in two human deaths and almost 400 injuries, according to data from a state road kill survey.

That represents a roughly 50 percent increase in wildlife collisions over the past four years. Summit County is part of the region with highest share of deaths, with roughly 2,100 since 2013.

The good news is that the recent construction of several wildlife crossings on Colorado Highway 9 north of Silverthorne appear to be working, according to state data.

Since the Colorado Department of Transportation completed two overpasses and five underpasses on a notoriously dangerous 10-mile stretch of road between Silverthorne and Kremmling, collisions have decreased by 87 percent, down from an annual average of 64 to just eight.

Now, federal, state and local officials have identified other hot spots where they'd like to build wildlife crossings, specifically on Interstate-70 east of Vail Pass and near Laskey Gulch, on Colorado Highway 91 near Copper Mountain and on Highway 9 north of Silverthorne and in the Blue River area.

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The biggest obstacle is money, although officials were optimistic about possible funding sources at a public meeting to present the plans in Frisco on Wednesday night, July 26.

"This is not going to be a project that relies on one big agency," said U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Ashley Nettles. "The funding is going to have to come from the community, and we have to get creative…. The Forest Service is broke, CDOT is broke, but I think together we can start thinking of innovative ways to make this happen."

While the U.S. Forest Service has spearheaded the planning effort, responsibility for actually building the crossings would fall on CDOT, an agency with roughly $11 billion in unfunded projects that is straining to just maintain current roads.

Thus, the most promising way to get the new projects off the ground would be to provide matching funds for CDOT with a mix of private donations and money from local governments.

That's how the Highway 9 project got done, with local residents pitching in with small donations and a single donor contributing $5 million of the roughly $50 million total cost.

All told, about 20 percent of the money for the project came from sources other than CDOT.

"There were contributors from all over the United States on that project," said CDOT planning and environmental manager Mike Vanderhoof.

To select the new priority areas, consultants worked with the Forest Service to analyze crash data and rank areas based on how important they are to wildlife movement — and how feasible a crossing would be.

Wildlife collision data, however, tend to understate the problem and are based only on cases where drivers stuck around at a crash scene and waited for a state patroller to take down an official report.

When collisions don't result in major damage or involve smaller animals, they often go unreported. Experts estimate that this happens for at least half of all collisions that occur, and carcass survey data from Blue Valley Ranch near Kremmling suggests that as many as 80 percent go undocumented.

Deer and elk are the most common animals to be hit, although moose, bears, coyotes and even goats make the list of casualties. Officials hope they can bring those down by replicating the success of the Highway 9 crossings.

"This is kind of the first and most successful system where we've been able to stop animals from getting onto the road and also mitigate the effects" of animal crossings, Vanderhoof said.