Cams track critters near Vail Pass | AspenTimes.com

Cams track critters near Vail Pass

Bob BerwynSummit County correspondent

A shrine elk is photographed by the critter cam on Vail Pass recently. The monitoring program launched by the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project has captured more than 400 images of mammals on the pass with motion-triggered cameras. (Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project)

With a little volunteer help and a funding boost from the National Forest Foundation, the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project has launched a wildlife monitoring program near Vail Pass, capturing nearly 400 images of elk, deer and other critters with motion-triggered cameras.The citizen science wildlife monitoring program is the first of its kind in Colorado, documenting extensive activity of both common and lesser-known species such as pine marten, according to the project’s program director, Julia Kintsch. The Ecosystem Project teamed up with the Vail-based Gore Range Natural Science School and the Denver Zoo. “The range of species we’re seeing is amazing,” said Amy Masching, a conservation biologist with the Denver Zoo. “Everything from birds to carnivores. A lot of animals show some curiosity when they come across one of the snares,” Masching said, explaining that in addition to snapshots, the citizen scientists document tracks and take hair samples from the monitoring sites. The volunteers visit the sites to change camera batteries and memory cards.SREP hopes to expand the program into Summit County, with cameras on the east side of Vail Pass, as well as near Highway 9, between Frisco and Breckenridge.But currently, the organization doesn’t have the capacity to use more volunteers, said development director Monique DiGiorgio.Grant funding and private donations have helped launch the program. Now, DiGiorgio said she’d like to see more corporations support the grassroots interest expressed by a surplus of volunteers. SREP needs money to add more cameras, she said, adding that the nonprofit has held discussions with some of Summit County’s largest businesses.

A mandatory eight- to 10-hour training is required for the program. So far, most of the volunteers are from the west side of the pass. Masching said it would be great to involve people from the Summit County side. The program will be limited during the winter due to the Colorado Department of Transportation safety requirements, but activities will ramp up again in the spring, she said.The monitoring effort is linked with a long-term plan to establish a safe wildlife crossing west of Vail Pass, where a broad band of mid-elevation forests ranges on either side of Interstate 70. The freeway often has been described as a “Berlin Wall” for wildlife, hampering north-south movement between large areas of good habitat on either side.”The citizen science data will boost our future monitoring efforts including genetic analysis to measure the extend to which the interstate acts as a barrier for wildlife populations,” Kintsch said. The data also will help determine the best location for a wildlife bridge near Vail Pass. Congress set aside funds to help the Colorado Department of Transportation conduct an environmental review and a preliminary engineering review for the bridge. Similar structures have been used successfully along the Trans-Canada highway, where wide, landscaped overpasses help critters move safely across the landscape. Canadian scientists are monitoring wildlife use of the overpasses versus the more traditional underpasses. For now, the use is about equal in some areas, but some scientists believe the animals will start to use the overpasses more frequently as the vegetation matures.The goal is to maintain ecosystem function, but there is also a strong human safety component.Vehicle-animal collisions are on the rise, according to CDOT, climbing from 1,263 in 1993 to 4,074 collisions in 2004 – a 300 percent increase. Since 1999, 15 collisions have resulted in human fatalities. The agency ranked wrecks involving wildlife as the third leading cause of crashes, behind speeding and inattentive driving. The fall (through early November) is the most dangerous. CDOT seeks to reduce the number of crashes substantially through a series of mitigation measures, including reduced speeds, overpasses and underpasses, warning signs and roadway lights.