Officials working on ways for safe passage for wildlife through Eagle County | VailDaily.com

Officials working on ways for safe passage for wildlife through Eagle County

In discussion of various projects, the group behind the Eagle County Safe Passages for Wildlife plan noted that their work is primarily focused on deer, elk and lynx needs. However, they also noted that by accommodating Eagle County's most common and endanger species, projects woulds would also benefit moose, bear, big horn sheep and mountain lions.

EAGLE — Motorists aren't the only ones having an increasingly difficult time navigating through Eagle County.

As more people travel Interstate 70, build homes in previously open areas and recreate on new trails in the backcountry, Eagle County's wildlife population is having a hard time finding safe passage through the area. In 2016, a stakeholder group including representatives from local governments, the Colorado Department of Transportation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, conservation groups, local businesses and interested citizens began work to address the issue. This week, the Eagle County commissioners heard an update about the effort.

Eagle County Safe Passages for Wildlife has set a goal "to create a common vision that identifies and prioritizes important wildlife movement areas and highway crossing zones in Eagle County."

Two years ago, the group's initial work included identifying habitat connections for wildlife movement across roads in Eagle County. A GIS based habitat analysis was also completed in 2016. With that baseline data now done, the group has moved on to identify priorities for wildlife projects.

Beyond Interstate 70

"Not only are we talking about the highway interface where animals are trying to cross the road, but also the broader landscape," said Julie Kintsch, of ECO-resolutions, during the Tuesday, Dec. 4, county session. "This isn't just about I-70. It is much broader than that."

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In development of the project priorities for the wildlife passage plan, Kintsch said a two-tier criteria was applied. The first consideration was the wildlife/safety need — would a project result in better conductivity for wildlife, what is the magnitude of the road crossing impact, would threatened or endangered species benefit and is the area a safety hazard to motorists? Applying those standards, a list of seven projects was identified. Five of the seven are located along I-70, one is along Colorado Highway 131 and one is along Colorado Highway 82.

"What you can see is some of them are driven more by the safety need and some more by the wildlife need," Kintsch said.

The second priority criteria was the feasibility of actually constructing the proposed project. With that standard applied on top of the wildlife/safety need, a list of four priorities was identified:

I-70 West Vail Pass

Construct wildlife crossing structures in coordination with the West Vail Pass Auxiliary Lanes project.

Coordination with the U.S. Forest Service to manage human activity.

I-70 Mud Springs — the area near the Minturn exit

Extend and improve the wildlife exclusion fence alignment

Replace the existing box culvert with a wildlife bridge or large culvert

SH 86 Emma

Replace the box culvert at mile marker 22.1 with a wider underpass or build an overpass at mile marker 22.2

Make wildlife exclusion fencing continuous and control all gaps, driveways and access roads with deer guards

U.S. Highway 24 Minturn to Gilman

Identify the best locations for wildlife crossing structures and wildlife exclusion fence

While the safe passages plan has compiled data and identified projects, it doesn't have implementation funding. That's the next step.

"I am really glad that CDOT is a plan partner," said Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan. "How can we get these projects into CDOT's funding queue?"

The projects won't be cheap. Preliminary estimates for wildlife migration structures run from $1 million for a tunnel under a two-lane road to up to $11 million for an I-70 tunnel.

Kintsch noted that ultimately, CDOT would be responsible for building and maintaining the structures. As for financing them, a big part of that would also fall on the state agency. But the projects would likely get priority in the CDOT budget if local partners stepped up to help fund them.

"Sometimes the initial funding is the hardest part to get to the table," she said.

There is also some work ahead for the wildlife passages plan itself. Eagle County Sustainable Communities Director Adam Palmer noted this week's presentation marked the first time the county commissioners had seen the plan and its path forward hasn't yet been determined. He noted the plan provisions could be woven into the county's open space and land use regulations or it could be a stand-alone document. Because a stakeholder group crafted the plan, Palmer said the next step may be to take the document to the Eagle County Planning Commission for discussion.

Palmer also asked the commissioners to consider hiring a project coordinator for the wildlife passages project. His estimated cost for that job is $20,000.