Crossing Vail Pass on four legs |

Crossing Vail Pass on four legs

Special to the Daily/Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project

VAIL PASS The way highway designers account for the presence of wildlife when theyre planning roadways in the U.S. is pretty simple: We build the road, you animals deal with it as best you can.The result isnt just a lot of dead animals. People die and are injured in collisions with animals, and millions of dollars are spent annually repairing vehicles damaged in the encounters. And while governments in Canada and Europe have addressed the problem with wildlife bridges and underpasses, the U.S. has largely ignored it up until now.In the transportation bill recently approved by the U.S. Congress, about $286 billion will be available to fund highways and transit over the next six years. And, for the first time, the bill includes language directing highway departments to consider wildlife in the initial planning, rather than in the final phase as is the case now.Trisha White, director of the Defenders of Wildlife Habit & Highways Campaign in Washington, D.C., said its an important change. Previously, she said, the assessment of environmental impacts took place toward the end of the approval process, which often resulted in costly lawsuits and even redesigns.Bureaucracies are the last sort of animals that like to change, White said. This makes a lot more sense.But, she added, theres still a lot of work to do. Convincing the bureaucrats that run state highway departments to think about wildlife isnt easy, given their focus on getting the most bang for the buck with those hard-won highway dollars. Theyre given a lot of money, you cant deny it, White said. And they respond to a public that wants more lanes, that wants to get where theyre going faster.Transportation agencies, then, are nervous about spending a lot of money on a wildlife crossing, she said. They think the public will criticize them.Another sticking point, White said, is that most people including the politicians and bureaucrats dont know solutions even exist for the problem.

Later this month, members of the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project are organizing a flight over Vail Pass to gain an eagles-eye view of the area. The Ecosystem Project is a nonprofit science organization dedicated to restoring and connecting ecosystems in Wyoming, Colorado and northern New Mexico. Because highways divide ecosystems, the notion of bridging those gaps is of great interest to people like Monique DiGiorgio, executive director of the Ecosystem Project.And Vail Pass may just be the states first big test case for how a wildlife overpass can make a difference.We need to be creative, and west Vail Pass is a great example because it has protected federal land on both sides, DiGiorgio said. White said the Colorado Department of Transportation is more receptive to wildlife planning than highway agencies in other states. Both she and DiGiorgio hope that with that thinking, combined with the $385 million the state gets out of the new bill and the language about wildlife protection, a Vail Pass wildlife overpass could be a pilot project leading to many others.Now that the transportation bill has passed, what were saying is, great, lets use some of those dollars for wildlife crossings, DiGiorgio said.Its a lot of dollars, though. Estimates for the construction of a wildlife bridge spanning all four lanes of the interstate range from $5 million to $8.6 million. Theres also added expense for maintenance and monitoring. The bridge would rely heavily on fencing along the interstate to help funnel animals toward the crossing. Monitoring the animals movement is essential for making the case on future projects that bridges work.Its a huge issue, where the funding is coming from, DiGiorgio said. It would have to be a mix of private, local and federal dollars.Colorado Rep. Mark Udall, who represents Eagle County, supports the project, according to Doug Young. As policy director for Udall, Young has followed the funding trail, which he says is rather complex.Its an evolving process, but we did request funding to the tune of $4 to 5 million, Young said.Rather than be part of the usual block of highway money that comes from the federal government, Young said the Vail Pass project would be funded through the Federal Highway Administration. At this point, he said he was unsure as to whether the project was earmarked or not. But it still may be viable, Young said.

Deer and elk seem like theyre a dime-a-dozen in Colorado. While most people understand the value of keeping them off the roads, it also seems like the risk of vehicle-wildlife encounters is a risk weve grown accustomed to living with. So why change?A few years ago, White visited several European countries where wildlife crossings are relatively common. We asked them if they were worried about what people said when they were spending money on all these crazy wildlife bridges, White said. That kind of thinking was crazy to them. They said why wouldnt we?In Holland, White said the only sizable carnivore left in the country is the lowly badger. But its been elevated to near-cult status for that very reason. We might be blas about all the wildlife we have, but the Europeans recognize how important it is and envy us for what we have, she said. They told us we should do whatever we had to in order to protect it.In states like Colorado, where people see wildlife as part of the reason they live here, White said the awareness of the problem and desire to address it is higher. DiGiorgio said other states, such as California, Montana and Idaho also have plans for wildlife crossings in the works. The hope is that, over the coming decades, such installations are much more common, and are also integrated into the price of building highways. Theres no way to deny the impact our roads and highways have on wildlife, White said. People know theres a problem and for the most part they dont want to see that, she said. But they dont know theres anything we can do about it.People like DiGiorgio are critical to letting people know about those solutions, White said. The work Monique is doing is amazing. She goes out and talks about the issues and works with the public to explain the solutions, White said. The message, White said, is that its a new concept for Americans, but its something thats worked well in other places.You just have to get out there and explain it, she said. Its a crazy idea, but its been done for decades.On the Net:Ecosystem Project: Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or Daily, Vail, Colorado

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