Local raises alarm for elk on I-70 near Vail
DOWD JUNCTION – The day Jim Gonzales finally had enough was the day he saw the two bull elk, antlers shattered and bloody, along Interstate 70 just west of Vail.Gonzales, a life-long Minturn resident, avid hunter, and member of several conservation groups, is pretty sure he knows how the elk got onto the highway: through one of several holes or sagging spots in a fence on the south side of the highway between the Minturn and West Vail exits.That fence is designed to funnel deer and elk to a tunnel under the interstate. If given a chance, though, the animals will avoid the tunnel and try to cross the interstate. The results can be bad news for motorists, and are usually fatal to the animals.”It’s totally preventable,” Gonzales said. Upset about the elk, and concerned about people driving through Dowd Junction, Gonzales has been trying to get the fence fixed, but said he’s getting nowhere fast with the Colorado Department of Transportation, which is responsible for the fence.Weldon Allen, the agency’s Western Slope maintenance supervisor, said the fence will get at least some attention this winter.”We’re going to do everything we can,” Allen said. “We don’t want critters on the road if we can help it. We’ll pull a contractor contract and try to get it fixed.”Allen said road crews are generally “buried” with problems from potholes to damaged guardrails.
“We’re aware of it and we’ll do what we can,” Allen said.Gonzales will believe it when he sees it.”That’s bull,” he said. “They’ve known about that fence for years.”More like decades, said a former area wildlife officer.”That fence has been an issue for 30 years, and it’s never been resolved,” said Bill Heicher, a former Colorado Division of Wildlife officer who spent his entire career in Eagle County.One of the problems with wildlife fences everywhere is money for maintenance, Heicher said.”There’s federal money available for construction, but maintenance comes out of the regular budget,” Heicher said. “There’s no line item for fences, so it’s a pretty low priority.”While Allen said a contractor could be in working on the worst spots in the fence within a week or so, he added that fencing in the Dowd Junction area isn’t the whole answer.”They can go out and around the fences in that area,” he said. “It’s a difficult area.”
But from video Gonzales shot in the area after he saw the dead elk, it’s clear that plenty of animals come across through holes and sagging spots in the fence.One possible solution is a variation of the “adopt a highway” program. The local chapters of the Mule Deer Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have asked for permission to use volunteers to fix the fence when there isn’t snow on the ground.”We’ll be looking at that request,” Allen said.But, Gonzales said, state officials have had that request for years.”They’re just trying to do damage control now,” he said. “They’ve endangered lives for years. But they can’t ignore it any more.”Until the fence is fixed, animals will continue to endanger themselves, and drivers. That’s what worries Gonzales.”It sounds good that they’ll fix the fence, but what about tonight?” he said.And, Heicher said, Gonzales finally sending letters and calling anyone who might listen might be what finally gets the fence fixed.”It’s a state agency,” he said. “It’s a bureaucracy. It takes some kind of pressure to get them to move. But they need to fix the holes in these fences, then keep it up year to year.”
Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14624, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Daily, Vail Colorado