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Emma wildlife underpass improved

Deer, elk and other wildlife now have a fighting chance to make it across Highway 82 in the Emma area.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has teamed with two local conservation groups to improve a wildlife underpass that has never really worked since it was built in the late 1980s.

The improvements were sought by the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Pitkin County Open Space program after they acquired 84 acres of land in Emma that contained the underpass.

“What would be ideal is if we had a wildlife overpass, but that costs one million dollars,” said Jeanne Beaudry, executive director of the conservancy.

So instead, they are trying to salvage use of the existing route, which is about one half-mile upvalley from the old Emma store.

For deer and elk, entering the dark, vegetation-choked tunnel was like staring down the barrel of a gun. According to Beaudry, the problems were many – wildlife had to jump down to get to the entrance of the tunnel; they had to fight their way through small trees and shrubs; water stood in the underpass; and light wasn’t visible on the other side.

Some animals were so wary of using the tunnel that they sought ways to sneak through a wildlife fence intended to keep them off the highway. Breaching that fence often had dire consequences.

The conservancy and Open Space program wanted to salvage the underpass because it can provide a critical migration route between the Christine State Wildlife Area and Roaring Fork River on the north and Light Hill and other public lands on the south. CDOT, which built the underpass, agreed to help.

The approach to the south side of the tunnel was re-graded so animals don’t have to jump so far down to enter, said Beaudry. New berms were built to screen the highway and traffic from wildlife heading toward the underpass.

A barbed-wire fence that had been in place to keep cattle from using the underpass was relocated. Vegetation was cut back, and drainage was improved.

About $30,000 worth of work has taken place on the south side of the underpass. CDOT has contributed in-kind work. The conservation groups hope to be at least partially refunded through a grant.

The north side of the tunnel and its approach won’t be touched until next year, Beaudry said. That side suffers the same problems. Nevertheless, she believes the improvements that have taken place will be enough to encourage use by deer and elk this winter.


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