Can Vail keep its bighorn sheep away from I-70?
Sheep are drawn to the salty taste of de-icer compounds
- Sound cannons.
- Salt licks on the hillside in East Vail.
- Putting more magnesium chloride on the frontage road.
- Using mylar and bamboo poles to distract the animals.
Bighorn sheep shouldn’t be on Vail’s frontage roads, and they really shouldn’t venture onto Interstate 70. Keeping the animals off the road could be tricky, though.
The sheep spend the winter on the hillside north of I-70 in East Vail. The herd isn’t big — somewhere between 40 and 55 animals — and that population has declined by roughly two-thirds since the 1990s, according to Colorado Parks & Wildlife.
The fate of the sheep has gained public notice since a parcel just north of the East Vail I-70 interchange has been proposed for workforce housing, and a number of animals have been spotted this winter.
The animals often lick the salty magnesium chloride residue off the roadways. Vail code enforcement officers often are stationed along that part of the frontage road to slow down traffic through the area.
The job gets harder when the sheep venture onto the interstate — sometimes with deadly consequences.
The Vail Town Council on Tuesday heard an update on ways to keep the sheep on the hillside.
Vail environmental sustainability director Kristen Bertuglia told council members that the town is working with both Colorado Parks & Wildlife and the Colorado Department of Transportation on ways to keep the animals off the roads.
The problem is the salt in road de-icers. Bertuglia said the sheep respond “like Pavlov’s dogs” to de-icer trucks.
Vail Public Works director Greg Hall told the council that the state wildlife agency has asked the town to use de-icer on the frontage roads to keep bighorns off the interstate.
The problem, Hall said, is that dry conditions meant town crews weren’t spraying de-icer, and the sheep went back to the interstate.
Councilmember Kim Langmaid asked if crews could just spray de-icer on the road’s shoulders.
“That seems like the lesser of evils,” she said.
Hall said crews could do that.
Another option to keep the animals off the roads is putting salt licks on the hillside.
That runs counter to conventional wildlife wisdom. Putting out salt licks or food can sometimes prompt animals to stay in an area past seasonal norms.
In addition, Bertuglia said that wildlife officials worry that salt licks could lead to “concentrated use” by animals, making the spread of disease more likely.
Vail Town Manager Scott Robson told council members that another method could be putting shiny mylar material on bamboo poles. That could create a sparkly visual that would deter bighorns from venturing on the highway.
The complication with that is the need for a permit from the transportation department since the poles would be put into state right-of-way along the highway. Robson added he believes that permit could be issued fairly quickly.
Robson added that the town has also asked for a variable message board on I-70 to inform motorists that sheep may be present.
The town has also put out information asking residents and visitors to stay away from the sheep.
People are asked to not stop alongside the road and urged to not approach the sheep.
“Even standing still at a (quarter-mile) distance will raise the sheep’s heart rate and burn excessive calories needed for their survival,” the material states.
People cycling or hiking are asked to keep their distance and try to find alternate routes to avoid them.
The flier also notes that there’s an approved bighorn viewing area on the south side of I-70 at the East Vail interchange parking lot.
Langmaid urged residents to call the town’s code enforcement officers if they see something that could present a danger to either the animals or humans.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2930.
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