Good fences make good neighbors: Since completion of I-70 wildlife fence, Eagle County has seen sizeable drop in accidents | VailDaily.com

Good fences make good neighbors: Since completion of I-70 wildlife fence, Eagle County has seen sizeable drop in accidents

EAGLE — A popular recent Facebook video showed a "traffic jam in Eagle" which consisted of a large herd of elk crossing U.S. Highway 6 east of town.

When viewed on a computer screen, the scene is charming. But when it played out in real life — as it was along on Interstate 70 in decades past — it was terrifying.

The reason elk and deer don't mount similar massive I-70 migrations is simple — there's a fence that prevents it.

Lining the majority of the I-70 corridor, on both the north and south sides, from Gypsum to Avon is an eight-foot tall fence built by the Colorado Department of Transportation. The fence extends some 33 miles and is credited with keeping deer and elk off the highway.

According to Martha Miller, East Program Engineer with the Colorado Department of Transportation, the success of the existing Eagle County wildlife fencing has convinced the state to expand it this year. Starting this spring, and continuing for two seasons, the department plans to build fencing on the north and south sides of I-70 between Dotsero and Gypsum and from Avon to Dowd Junction. The total cost of the 18.5 mile project is estimated to be $3.1 million.

Dual beneficiaries

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While the impetus for the fencing project is protection of the traveling public, the project obviously benefits four-legged residents as well.

"They seem to have adapted to the fence," said Craig Wescoatt, wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "I-70 used to be more dangerous for both the animals and for people."

Wildlife managers were involved in the fence design, a project that took decades. Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager Bill Andree noted the fence construction actually began back in the 1990s on the section between Eagle and Horn Ranch, with other sections incrementally completed in the early 2000s.

Andree noted one winter before the fence was completed, 30 elk were killed along the I-70 corridor. "Now if we lose one or two elk on the interstate, it is a big number," he said.

"Certainly the fence has reduced the number of roadkill," continued Andree. "And the animals have adapted as much as possible. In some places (where they formerly crossed I-70) it wasn't so much they needed to cross as much as there was an attractive nuisance on the other side."

Those attractive nuisances included greener grass or highway salt.

Even with the presence of the fence, a persistent animal can still migrate from north to south along the corridor at natural breaks that occur at I-70 exit locations. That's why the escape ramps are also placed along the corridor.

How about Highway 6?

While the wildlife fence along I-70 is being expanded, there are no plans to mount a similar project along the U.S. Highway 6 corridor.

"The speeds along Highway 6 are slower and the traffic volumes are less," said Andree. To date, collision problems haven't warranted a fence project.

But the transportation department's wildlife mitigation efforts have stretched beyond the I-70 corridor in other areas of the state. One of the latest examples is the Colorado Highway 9 project from north Silverthorne to Kremmling. The effort includes underpass and overpass structures for animal migration.

According to Miller, ​wildlife-vehicle collision carcasses collected in the completed section of the project area decreased from a five-year average of 31, to a total of three in the winter of 2015/16.

"That is a 90 percent reduction," said Miller. "The caveat is that this is based on only on year of data for phase one only. We will be monitoring wildlife-vehicle collisions through winter 2019/2020."

Eagle County Wildlife Fence

33 miles: The length of the current fence, which extends from Gypsum to Avon.

18.5 Miles: The length of the extension planned this year — Dotsero to Gypsum and Avon to Dowd Junction.

8 feet: The height of the fence.

58: The number of wildlife escape ramps currently in Eagle County.

23: The number of planned new wildlife escape ramps.

6 feet: The height of the escape ramps.

$4 million: The total cost of the existing Eagle County wildlife fence.

$3.1 million : Estimated cost of the extension.

2010: The year the existing wildlife fence through Eagle County was competed.

423: The number of wildlife/vehicle collisions in Eagle County from 2006 to 2011.

301: The number of wildlife/vehicle collisions in Eagle county from 2011-2015.

25 percent: Reduction in the total number of collisions following fence installation.

30 percent: Reduction in wildlife-related injury crashes following fence installation.

50 percent: Reduction in human injuries from wildlife-related crashes following fence installation.

$2,900: The average amount paid for a single wildlife/vehicle collision claim.

$1.1 billion: The amount the insurance industry pays for all wildlife/vehicle collision claims nationwide.

Source: Colorado Department of Transportation