Colorado agencies creating strategies for reducing highway animal deaths
SILVERTHORNE — The amount of wildlife hit and killed by motorists in Colorado has grown by nearly 50 percent in the past four years, and two state agencies are now streamlining efforts to reduce these deadly collisions.
Nearly 7,000 wild animals were cut down by passing trucks and cars in 2016, according to roadkill survey data from the Colorado Department of Transportation, resulting in two human fatalities and almost 400 injuries. Year after year since 2013, the CDOT region that includes Summit County has had the highest wildlife mortality rate, with almost 2,100 deaths — roughly 81 percent of which were deer or elk.
Specifically, the stretches north of Silverthorne toward Green Mountain Reservoir and on the Summit side of Vail Pass on Interstate 70 are hot spots for the county. Knowing that the Western Slope and entire western side of the state experience the majority of these animal-vehicle crashes — more than 60 percent of the state total last year — helped to initiate a priority study for planning mitigation techniques.
“At this point, I think a lot of the problems are on the West Slope,” said Mike Vanderhoof, a planning and environmental manager for CDOT. “We agree,” the rest of the state has mounting issues, too, “we just have a little bit of a head start on the West Slope side.”
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In neighboring Grand County beyond Green Mountain Reservoir, a $40 million project got underway in 2015 to install seven animal crossings along State Highway 9 in another particularly troublesome area. Three underpasses and one overpass leading to Kremmling were completed first, followed by another overpass and two underpasses the next year closer to the reservoir.
Today, thousands of wildlife, from elk and deer to moose, bobcats, coyote and foxes, have been monitored using the crossings each year, helping to offset potential danger to the animal and commuters. The 10.4-mile roadway has now seen an 87 percent decrease in carcasses, down from a five-year annual average of 64 to eight following the project’s completion.
But both CDOT and Colorado Parks and Wildlife acknowledge that financing such projects remains the primary obstacle. State budgets are decreasing, and yet the expectations of each agency only continue to increase.
“The funding is a challenge,” Michael Lewis, CDOT’s deputy director, explained at a meeting Wednesday. “It has always been a challenge. Nobody is going to come in and throw bags of money on the table and say, ‘We’ve got you covered, go and solve this.’”
So instead, along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other stakeholders such as local governments, CDOT and Colorado Parks and Wildlife say it will take prioritizing problem sites and creative approaches to finding solutions.
Simply establishing lines of communication on this growing issue between the two organizations, which sometimes have different goals and objectives, itself took several years. That first formal meeting of the minds took place Tuesday and Wednesday in Silverthorne to begin to form a mission and strategic plan for their collaborative work.
With the largest elk herd in the country at 278,000, and one of the largest deer populations in the western United States, at 419,000 post-hunt, Colorado brings in $919 million each year from big game hunting and $2.3 billion from wildlife viewing. Meanwhile, based on those animal collisions that go reported, the economic cost is more than $68 million annually, and rising.
The state’s population is also projected to grow from five to eight million in the next two decades and to 10.5 million by 2050, which almost certainly will trigger more and more wildlife-vehicle conflicts.
With each dead animal, there’s greater chance of hampering this key component of Colorado’s recreational economy, on top of the desire to improve wildlife protections and highway safety.
“We are absolutely arm in arm with CDOT right now,” said Bob Broscheid, director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We’re both in the same position with priorities with where the money is going to go, but we’re trying to find solutions. If we’re going to double by 2050, where are these people going to go and how are they going to get there?”