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Breaking through wildlife’s Berlin Wall

Staff Reports

Interstate 70 has been many things to many people, but to wildlife officials, it has long been known as, “The Berlin Wall.”Speeding cars and massive semis cruise along the highway, taking people anywhere they would want to go.But to wildlife, the strip of asphalt impedes travel and becomes an impenetrable division between wild areas. Several underpasses are already in use in Eagle County, and wildlife officials report that these tunnels have been somewhat effective.But some animals would respond better to an overpass, advocates say, so now a group of local and regional wildlife advocates are trying to build a rare kind of bridge over I-70.The Wilderness Workshop and the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project started working this year with members of state and U.S. Congress to seek a preliminary amount of $4.5 million in federal funding to build a vegetated wildlife overpass on I-70 west of Vail Pass. The bridge, advocates say, would improve traveler safety while providing safe passage for wildlife across the bustling highway.Between 1993 and 2003, drivers reported 83 wildlife-vehicle collisions between milepost 190 at Vail Pass and milepost 176 at the Town of Vail.The number of total animal deaths is hard to pin down, but experts say there is enough road kill to eventually cripple Colorado’s highly-valued ecosystem, as the wildlife killed in those crashes included coyote, deer, elk, and two of Colorado’s recently-reintroduced Canada lynx.Beyond protecting people, advocates say the project will make for a healthier ecosystem in the area. The town of Vail and Eagle County agree; both have penned letters of support.”Everyone feels that the wildlife of Colorado is important and it’s one of the reasons we live here,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale and one of the leading supporters of the proposed overpass. “(Animals) need to have the genetic exchange that is available through migration.”Genetic exchange is important for species health and our own quality of life, Shoemaker said.In a study funded by the Federal Highway Administration, the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project identified eight areas of roadway that impede major wildlife migrations. Only one of these areas is in Eagle County a stretch of I-70 near Eagle.But researchers have chosen West Vail Pass for the site of the overpass, not because it has the highest incidents of roadkill, but because it is a high-profile stretch of highway that impedes many different species. For these reasons, researchers feel the location can serve as the common example for future projects in Colorado.”The overpass at West Vail pass is a pilot project. It’s not supposed to indicate that this is the most dangerous stretch of roadway. It’s meant to help CDOT and other non-profits to see what needs to be done,” said Monique DiGiorgio, executive director at the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project. The project, “Is by no means saying that Vail Pass is the most important (site), but you’ve got to start somewhere.”Shoemaker also said that Vail Pass is important even though it is not the main area of concern when it comes to wildlife-vehicle collisions.”This passage of I-70 has been identified as having great forested habitat approaching it from the south and protected wilderness on the north,” he said. “Ecologically, this particular spot is a really, really important spot.”Does it work?Protected habitats on both sides of an overpass is important to its success, according to researchers at Montana State University, who have provided advocates with a five-year study of two overpasses along the Trans Canada Highway in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.What is good for the wildlife is in turn good for humankind: the study in Banff showed an 80 percent reduction in animal-vehicle collisions, making the roads safer for travelers.”A lot of it is common sense. If you can ensure having habitat on both sides, and you put a structure there, then animals will use it,” said Jen Watkins, Outreach Director at the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition in Seattle, another regional advocacy group looking at the work done in Banff.The proposed overpass, when combined with existing underpasses and added fencing, would be part of a wildlife crossing strategy designed to accommodate all animals and lead them through safe passageways.Former DOW employee Bill Heicher saw I-70 develop during his 30-plus years with the Division. He helped create underpasses in Eagle County in the 1970s, and today there are three underpasses between Eagle and Gypsum and one near Dowd Junction.Although Heicher agrees that the addition of an overpass would cater to more kinds of animals, he remains pessimistic.”Overpasses work,” he said “But if you’re really going to allow free movement of wildlife, it’s going to be real costly. For an overpass that is going to suit all wildlife you definitely have to have more than one.”Heicher wonders if some animals won’t know how to access the overpass. Deer, he says, will only travel a quarter of a mile along a fence, meaning deer would need an overpass every half-mile. Also, smaller animals such as porcupines live their whole lives in an area of a few square miles, also making it difficult to use an overpass that’s potentially miles away.”It’s definitely not a cure-all,” said Heicher.Construction in Eagle County could begin within two years, but several obstacles would have to be overcome. Contractors would need $4.5 to 8 million, depending on the exact location of the overpass.Supporters are, ” seeking the money from a different pot,” Shoemaker said. That source of gold would come from The Federal Highway Administration’s federal lands program.Because the proposed overpass connects two areas of federal land in The White River National Forest and would span an interstate highway, federal funds could be available to help wildlife advocates and CDOT begin construction on the overpass in 2007. Sloan said U.S. Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado has already requested the initial $4.5 million in the 2006 federal transportation appropriation bill.But Shoemaker isn’t holding out for government funds.”We’re looking to find some partners who can perhaps help with some funding,” he said.He also pointed out that the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Town of Vail, and Eagle County have all come out in support of the project, and may deliver funding assistance. VT– Chris Black can be reached for comment at cdb4280@aol.com.


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