Bridging the ‘Berlin Wall’
VAIL ” It’s tough to take a trip over Vail Pass without seeing the mashed remains of animals killed by vehicles.
So deadly is busy I-70 to animals wildlife experts have dubbed it the “Berlin Wall.” Vail Pass bisects a heavily-forested area where wildlife travel between the Eagles Nest Wilderness and the Holy Cross Wilderness and beyond. Environmentalists say the highway divides the entire southern and northern Rockies ecosystems
But a new proposal seeks to change that by creating Colorado’s first wildlife overpass near the top of Vail Pass. Animals seeking to cross the highway would be funneled to crossing points by fences running along the highway from East Vail to near Copper Mountain. Those fences would allow the animals to pass over the highway via a bridge.
Between 1993 and 2003, 83 animal collisions were reported between mile marker 176 at the town of Vail and 190 at the top of Vail Pass. Eleven people were injured and the animals killed in collisions include coyotes, deer, elk and two lynx, among other animals. The number no doubt is much higher, wildlife officials said, because most wildlife-car collisions go unreported.
“This area along I-70 is one of the most critical wildlife connections in the state of Colorado,” said Keith Giezentanner, forest ecologist for the surrounding White River National Forest. “Two lynx moralities along this stretch of road confirm its use by a threatened species.”
Both the town of Vail and Eagle County have written letters to Colorado’s congressional delegation supporting the overpass.
“The town of Vail is extremely enthusiastic about this project and the benefit it will have for wildlife and the residents and visitors of Vail,” wrote Mayor Rod Slifer.
Money for the project could come from a special fund within the Federal Highway Administration, said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale.
The U. S. Forest Service, Colorado Division of Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other groups appear to support the idea of helping wildlife cross the highway safely. The Colorado Department of Transportation’s long range plans to expand the capacity of the highway also identify the highway as a ” wildlife linkage interference zone.”
An overpass is projected to cost $4.5 million and would be approximately 150 feet wide and twice that long. The overpass will be covered with trees and sod and bushes to mimic the natural landscape.
The new structure would need to be large enough to accommodate additional traffic lanes and possibly lanes for a train or bus that maybe someday run over Vail Pass.
The wildlife overpass concept isn’t new ” several have been built in Canada’s Banff National Park and in Europe.
Where the safe crossing points have been built, such as on the Trans Canada Highway in Alberta, animal-car collisions have been reduced by up to 80 percent, a five-year study reports. Those crossing points include culverts under highways for smaller animals and vegetated overpasses such as that proposed for Vail Pass.
Not all animals will use the overpass. Mountain lions and bear, studies show, are more likely to go under the highway below the many elevated stretches of the highway while other animals would use the overpass. Fences from East Vail will funnel animals to safe passage.
Studies will be made of wildlife crossing points using tracking, remote cameras and observers to help determine exactly where the overpass should be built, said Monique DiGiorgio of the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project. The information gathered would also help determine how effective the project has been.
“This is going to be a pilot project for the state of Colorado,” she said, adding the structure will be built at or near milepost 188, just two miles west of the top of the pass.
A similar, but much smaller project to accommodate a mule deer migration route, was included when I-70 was built through West Vail in the early ’70s. A fence straddling the highway funnels the animals through a small tunnel under the highway about a mile west of West Vail.
If funding for the project is approved, proponents say work could begin in as little as two years. Shoemaker said so far, Rep. Mark Udall, Eagle County’s congressman, has expressed support for the overpass while remaining members of the state’s congressional delegation have yet to express their opinions.
“The more people realize the potential for this project, the more it will help with appropriation,” said DiGiorgio. “We need to increase educational awareness.”
Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or firstname.lastname@example.org