Bighorn sheep killed in East Vail near controversial development site
The town of Vail has confirmed a bighorn sheep was hit and killed Monday on the westbound Interstate 70 on-ramp in East Vail.
The single-vehicle crash occurred at approximately 11:39 a.m. Passengers aboard the East Vail bus that left the Vail Transportation Center at 11:30 a.m. reported seeing the sheep convulsing on the side of the road shortly after being hit.
“It was pretty shocking, really,” said East Vail resident Kent Johnson.
Johnson said about 20 to 30 people, himself included, were on the bus and saw the animal in a near-death state. The riders were stunned by the sight, Johnson said.
“We were appalled,” he said.
On a nearby piece of land planned for a high-density residential development, residents say bighorn sheep sightings have been common over the last two weeks. As Debby Eno snapped a photo while her husband, Gary, drove past the herd over the weekend, Gary said he was surprised by how close to the road the sheep had been gathering in recent weeks.
“This year they’ve been getting closer, and we’ve been seeing more rams in the area that’s planned for development,” Gary Eno said.
Retired Colorado Parks and Wildlife official Bill Andree, who spent roughly 30 years studying wildlife in the Vail area, said bighorn sheep get hit by vehicles in that area “every couple of years.”
Andree said true numbers are uncertain as it can be hard to tell just how a bighorn died, particularly if the animal made it back to the hillside and the carcass has been scavenged.
Andree attended a meeting in Vail on Monday afternoon and noted that police officers were in East Vail trying to shoo the animals back up the hillside and slow down motorists in the area.
Earlier in the morning, Vail code enforcement officers had been dispatched to help move rams and ewes away from the roadway. The officers were returning to assist with a second safety sweep when the ram was hit.
Devin Duval, Colorado Parks and Wildlife district wildlife manager, said the erratic sheep behavior is occurring due to the bighorn mating season, which typically runs from November through December, with early December being the peak.
“This time of year, rams are almost exclusively concerned with mating, not with perceived risks of traffic,” Duval said. “This, coupled with recent weather events and more ewes on their winter range earlier have created conditions that are ripe for conflict along the roadways in East Vail.”
Johnson said a joke among locals was that the sheep were demonstrating their presence amid reports of impending development in their East Vail habitat.
Sixty-one residential units, which could house a maximum of 450 people, have been planned for the area near the westbound on-ramp where the ram was killed. The land, which was once thought to be state-owned open space, was recently found to be owned by Vail Resorts, which plans to use a portion of the property for worker housing.
“We laughed about it over the last couple of weeks,” Johnson said. “The sheep got the word. … They’re starting their protests.”
After witnessing the juxtaposition of a convulsing ram in front of the future development sight, Johnson said no one was laughing anymore.
“Then I took back my words,” Johnson said. “It’s not very funny. … This is the wrong location and the wrong process. Nothing against employee housing, but whoever said there’s not bighorn sheep there is full of it. They’re right there.”
—Vail Daily staff writer Scott Miller contributed to this report