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Vagneur: Wildlife bridges might help

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore
Tony Vagneur

“Where could they be?” someone asked. We’d skied hard that day and now were at a downvalley dinner party for just a few, and their tardiness by more than an hour was concerning. Maybe they fell asleep, just dozed off, as sometimes happens.

No cell phones back then, no answer on their landline, and visions of cars in ditches or collisions, or whatever, were possibilities.

They’d hit a deer on Highway 82, on a stretch famous for deer and elk traffic, and, for collisions, many of them deadly for wildlife and expensive for the humans who managed to walk away. It’s not an easy thing, hitting a deer or an elk (or a bear or a horse), for the police need to be called to investigate and make sure it was an animal you hit and not a human hit-and-run.



You’d just leave? Right, it’s night, both headlights knocked out, just drive away. You can’t get a wrecker without notification of the police. Dream on. It’s not a pleasant situation. 

The long stretch of Highway 82 just past Carbondale on the way to Glenwood used to be nicknamed the Bowling Alley by those who drove the highway frequently. It was not unusual to see up to a dozen deer carcasses on any given day. It’s hard to say what the vehicle or human toll might have been. It’s usually a stress-causing memory after the event. 




According to National Geographic, “Road kill is a serious problem in motor transportation. Crossing deer and other large mammals can create life-threatening hazards on roadways. In the United States alone, there are more than a million automobile accidents per year involving wildlife, racking up more than $8 billion in medical costs and vehicle repairs annually.”

How many people around here do you know who have hit a deer or other large animal? I personally know two people who, while riding motorcycles, have had deer run into them. There have been a few friends over the years who have totaled their cars, either from directly hitting wildlife or wrecking while trying to avoid hitting a living creature. Kids, proud of their first car, suddenly finding themselves on foot. Today’s Bambi wondering where his mother is.

Wildlife bridges are a coming thing in a world with more and more traffic. It’s a simple concept — build a bridge across the highway wide enough for all wildlife to cross. These bridges can be made to look exactly like the land on either end, thus convincing wildlife to use them. 

The Highway Department has done a good job of fencing along Highway 82, but it hasn’t stopped the carnage completely. Finding an outlet to get back on the wildlife side of the fence can’t be easy for deer, elk, or other four-legged creatures. 

Not only do wildlife bridges — or animal crossings, if you prefer — help wildlife get safely across highways, they begin to allow wildlife to reconnect areas that have been segmented and fragmented by the proliferation of roads in our country. They allow the good-looking buck to find the better-looking doe for the purposes of procreation.

Our deer and elk populations are down — wildlife bridges will help right the ship. If you want to know more, go to Roaring Safe Passages at https://www.roaringforksafepassages.org, a local group discussing animal bridges.   

Before Highway 82 was four-lane, I came across a cow elk in the upvalley lane unable to move her hind legs and in distress. I tried to pull her off of the highway without success. About then, a sheriff’s deputy saw my flashers and stopped. “The only humane thing we can do is shoot her” was my advice. The deputy unholstered her firearm and aimed it toward the elk, then stopped. “I cannot shoot that poor thing” was her reply. 

“Then give me the gun and I’ll do it” was my retort, to which she handed the pistol my way, but, before I could dispatch the poor cow elk, the deputy, having second thoughts, said, “No, I cannot let you fire my pistol.”

Very well. After that exchange, she got the job done, and it was messy getting the elk out of the road. This happened in an area where elk and deer are still hit by vehicles on a regular basis.  

A wildlife bridge would be invaluable in keeping our wildlife alive and our vehicles safe from collisions with large mammals. In 1975, the Utah Department of Transportation installed the first wildlife bridge in the nation on I-15 near the town of Beaver. Since then, about 50 have been installed in Utah. 

If you look closely at the preferred alternative for the Aspen Castle Creek Bridge drawings, you can see that a wildlife bridge is part of the plan, getting the cars onto Main through more of a straight shot. It’s in an area where it’s needed. 

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.