Roaring Fork Safe Passages aims to protect wildlife and connect high quality habitats |

Roaring Fork Safe Passages aims to protect wildlife and connect high quality habitats

Roaring Fork Safe Passage hopes to prevent wildlife vehicle collisions by building overpasses and underpasses for animals.
Balmori Associates, courtesy of ARC Solutions

Cecily DeAngelo was driving on Highway 82 when she happened to be behind a car that hit a stag.

“It was really distressing and hard to watch,” she said. “It hit me hard.”

This incident, combined with her passion for wildlife and the realization that vehicle-wildlife collisions are solvable problems, led her to create Roaring Fork Safe Passages, a non-profit dedicated to reducing these along Highway 82.

Highway 82 sits just below the top 5% of worst hit areas in the state. Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) creates a list of priorities, and Highway 82 did not make the list for Region 3.

“It almost seems like a rounding error that we’re not making it into the worst hit areas in the state,” DeAngelo said.

Oftentimes, wildlife-vehicle collision numbers reported are inaccurate because they are solely based on reports from CDOT, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), and local sheriff’s deputies or police officers. Additionally, the only collisions reported are ones concerning large animals, such as deer and elk.

Watershed Biodiversity Initiative Director Tom Cardamone added that small animals like fox, coyote, and badgers are often killed on roads, but these numbers are never reported.

Benefits to creating wildlife passes extend beyond just minimizing wildlife-vehicle collisions. DeAngelo said insurance companies pay out $8 billion each year for these collisions.

Up until now, she said there hasn’t been a single person able to dedicate time to this. She hopes to be able to advocate on the local level and push this project forward.

“When areas implemented proper fencing with crossings, the wildlife-vehicle collisions are reduced by over 90%,” she said.

The Roaring Fork Safe Passages initiative has partnered with another local non-profit: Watershed Biodiversity Initiative. Under the leadership of Cardamone, groups created a valleywide study of the million-acre Roaring Fork Watershed. The study, according to him, has created a series of maps that show where the highest-quality habitats are within the million-acre watershed.

“One key part of that is we have mapped what are generically called pinch points. Those are partly identified by places where there’s high-roadkill counts,” he said. “From Aspen to Glenwood Springs, we have a map that shows in bright red where the high roadkills are.”

In places where there were high numbers of roadkill, he and his team prioritized those points based on whether the road was obstructing high-quality habitats or not. In some places, there were causes — such as a hole in a fence — that allowed animals to cross the road. In others, Highway 82 was inhibiting connectivity of the habitat. Those places were identified as high priority, Cardamone said.

Using this data, DeAngelo and Roaring Fork Safe Passages will identify what the challenges are to actually creating wildlife crossings in these places. Additionally, Safe Passages will identify the worst-hit areas in the valley and prioritize them.

Roaring Fork Safe Passage will identify high priority crossing points and build overpasses or underpasses, depending on what kinds of wildlife needs to cross. (ARC Solutions)
Balmori Associates, courtesy of ARC Solutions

“The thing that’s really incredible about this step for us is that it’s a lot easier because of Tom’s work,” she said. “We are in a really fortunate position that we have a lot of what we need. It’s just a matter of putting that together in a report.”

The next step, she said, is to take the top one to four of the worst-hit areas and come up with mitigation plans.

“The mitigation plans are more in depth and will be looking at the topography and type of structure that benefits the type of animals that need to migrate in that area,” she said. “If it’s an overpass, it can’t be in a place where it creates more icing. If it’s an underpass it has to be in a place that can be dug out.”

Cardamone added that CPW officers are talking directly with the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative and their scientists about the study and figuring out how to expand it to the entire state.

“Although we might not be at the top of the priority list for the highway overpasses, we are the place in the state that Parks and Wildlife is looking to for a model,” Cardamone said. “That adds some weight and credibility to our effort here.”

Wildlife overpasses and underpasses not only prevent wildlife vehicle collisions, but also allow for connections between high quality habitats that were divided by Highway 82. (ARC Solutions)
OLIN Studio, courtesy of ARC Solutions

One example of successful wildlife passages is the Colorado Highway 9 Wildlife Crossing Project. This 11-mile stretch of road has two wildlife overpasses, five wildlife underpasses, nine pedestrian walk-throughs, 61 wildlife-escape ramps and 29 wildlife guards — all of which are connected by 10 miles of 8-foot-high wildlife fencing.

“The success of that project, I think, is really an example to the rest of Colorado of what we can do to reduce this problem that we all have,” said DeAngelo.

That system was completed in 2016. Since then, CDOT, CPW, and Eco-resolution completed a five-year effectiveness-monitoring study, which documented 112,678 mule deer successful passages through or over the seven crossing structures, according to the CPW website.

Roaring Fork Safe Passages has launched a fundraising effort with the goal of raising $150,000 by June 1, 2023. Recently, the organization received a $10,000 grant from the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Environment Foundation to support its launch. These funds will be used for start-up costs and the creation of the prioritization study and mitigation plan.


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