Remains of the Day
No one ever seems to see it coming.Charging along westbound I-70 at the bottom of Vail Pass, leveling off on the final dips before the East Vail exit, everything seems peaceful and quiet. The roar of the engine, the stereo turned up good and loud, a bit of a buzz from skirting the speed limit all the way from Denver, and home just a few minutes away.Then like a bolt out of the blue, there’s a blur in your path, a flash in the headlights and a sudden and sickening explosion of bone and blood and fur. There’s no time to react, just a terrible shudder and crash as something comes streaming into your path, then bounces, hard, like living dynamite. You slam on the brakes, jostled by the collision, struggling to keep your car on the road a truck following behind you swerves to the left and continues on.Your own car slows and, gathering your breath, you step outside to take a look. This time you’re lucky; whatever it was on four hooves that chose to leap into your path only took out a headlight, leaving a slightly bloody turn signal it didn’t leap at the last moment and crash through your windshield, potentially killing you on impact.You take a quick look behind the car, off in the darkness, but can see nothing on the highway or even close to the shoulder. Could an animal have survived that kind of collision, or did it limp off, only to collapse in the woods? Is there anything you could have done to prevent an impact? You promise to slow down, but will anyone else?It’s a scenario played out all too frequently on the valley’s roadways. Mix one part bountiful wildlife, one part human development, add high year-round vehicle speeds and you have a recipe for road kill. We pride ourselves on a healthy relationship with nature and seem to have some of the most advanced roadways in the country, complete with miles and miles of deer fences and elaborate animal crossings such as the Dowd Junction elk migration chute, but highway road kill is a sad fact of life.I-70, that guilded stretch of pavement that connects the High Country to the Front Range in nearly effortless fashion, also serves as a Berlin Wall for mountain wildlife. Many critters are lucky and manage to skirt fences, Jersey barriers and hurtling tractor-trailers as they make their way from side to side; others aren’t quite as fortunate and end up as carcasses that dot the roadway.Interstate 70 isn’t the only culprit. Who hasn’t heard horror stories of a late-night elk collision on a twisty stretch of country road like Hwy. 131, or witnessed near-miss incidents as the Arrowhead herd tries to make its way across an increasingly neo-urban motorway like U.S. Hwy. 6?Bill Heicher, former Colorado Department of Wildlife head for the valley, says it’s a problem that’s never particularly waned along the I-70 corridor, despite modern automobile and road safety technology. And while the proverbial dead skunk (or larger ungulate) in the middle of the road seems like a given on mountain roads, Heicher says it sometimes takes a particularly gruesome incident to give the subject some political weight or at least get a carcass off of the highway.”I remember during the midst of one of the Gerald Ford golf tournaments, a deer was hit on I-70 through Vail and had been left at the side of the road,” Heicher says. “Eventually, it got all bloated, and I guess that wasn’t a problem until people on a couple of the nearby golf holes could smell it. That’s when the talk went around that somebody had to go pick it up, but it turned into the old DOW versus highway department debate, and nobody wanted to take responsibility. Eventually, the governor’s office got involved and we finally got the call to go take care of the problem. It’s nonsense.”Traditional protocol places the responsibility for removal of animal remains squarely in the hands of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s maintenance department, whose crews are contacted by State Patrol or local agencies such as the Vail Police Department. In instances where a larger animal has been killed but not terribly torn apart, passersby can also request a road kill permit and salvage the meat for their own consumption (see sidebar). And while CDOT crews are generally pretty good about getting to a carcass before there’s too much complaint, it’s the ones that get away that help reveal the deeper breadth of the issue.Bill Andre, current district wildlife manager for the Colorado Department of Wildlife, says it doesn’t take much to see the larger devastation at work along the state’s roads.”All you have to do is walk along the highway and go in a bit, and you’ll start seeing the carcasses 100 feet from the road,” he says. “In the last few years, we’ve had several bears who were hit but weren’t killed on the road, so we’ve had to go out looking for them. We followed one blood trail three-quarters of a mile off of Dowd Junction and could see where the bear had sat down to rest, but had still managed to get up and walk. We could only figure that the bear was hurt and probably died somewhere deeper in the woods.”The body countJeff Nubold, CDOT’s maintenance management system coordinator, gets the somewhat morbid duty of tallying the count of animal carcasses picked up by CDOT crews each year. Since July, Nubold says CDOT’s critter count is up to 1,724, which includes everything from deer, elk and mountain goats to smaller animals. The entire previous year only produced 2,597 dead animals.Most of those who deal with road kill on a regular basis contend that the true numbers are considerably higher.”I’d estimate that at least 100 percent more animals are killed than what we actually see,” Andre says. “We’ll get calls from people saying they’ve just run into a deer and want us to come and look or try to help I’ve had plenty of times where we’ve searched for a quarter mile or more and can’t find an injured animal. Most critters that are hit have suffered major broken bones or internal damage, and the damage is difficult to repair just the same as it is with people who’ve been in a car accident. Even if we are able to find a living elk or deer, they’re usually destroyed the time it takes to try to fix a leg is just simply cost prohibitive.””Nobody keeps really good stats on road kill,” says Heicher. “We counted 358 deer in one winter on the stretch between Eagle and Wolcott, but I think the number killed was probably closer to 600 or 700. A group formed in November in the Front Range their whole purpose was to try to make people more aware of the issue and their numbers suggested maybe 6,000 to 7,000 animals are killed each year in Colorado, not just deer and elk but skunks, rabbits, hawks and eagles.”Add to that the ongoing research at Colorado State University regarding the largely ill-fated reintroduction of the Canada lynx to the state a majority of the animals have been killed crossing highways on some sort of instinctual northward migration and it seems likely that Colorado’s road kill problem will only escalate as time goes along, especially as the human population in the state continues to grow.The good news, says Commander Steve Wright of the Vail Police Department, is that a relatively crummy snow year such as we seem to be experiencing offers a virtual reprieve for I-70 corridor animal deaths.”It seems to be a seasonal thing, definitely driven by the amount of snowfall this year we’ve had relatively few incidents,” Wright says. “With an abundant food source, animal-vehicle incidents are not so bad. But when we do have a lot of snow, the animals are driven to a lower altitude and there are more opportunities for accidents on I-70. I look back to a tremendous snow year like 1994 and it was a very significant problem. We’ve also been lucky we haven’t had human fatalities from animal-car crashes in several years.”Wright, commuting on a daily basis from his home in Summit County to duty in Vail, gets to spot the worst of I-70’s auto/animal battleground. When animal collisions do occur, the bulk of the local issues take place between milemarkers 176 and 180, or in the notoriously tight curves of Dowd Junction.Dowd Junction’s celebrated elk migration underpass, which sees the biking path closed to the public and screened off during peak migration times, looks like it would provide safe passage to animals not to mention acting as a good example to be repeated elsewhere along the I-70 corridor but Andre says even it doesn’t quite serve its stated purpose.”That underpass hasn’t been a great success. Frankly, the design stinks, but when it was built in 1970, it seemed like a great idea I guess there was a lot about animal behavior we didn’t know at the time. Thinking about it now, you probably couldn’t even get many people who’d want to walk through a 10 by 10 concrete box, much less critters who don’t like to be in enclosed spaces and are in constant fear of predators. We estimate that 60 percent of the herd make it through there but there’s still 40 percent who don’t.”Safe motoringWhat can drivers do to try to cut down on the chances of an expensive and even potentially fatal collision?Do the variety of special ultrasonic deer whistles and electronic warning and lighting systems make much difference?The Vail P.D.’s Wright says the worst hours for animal-vehicle accidents tend to be low-light situations, either at dusk or very late at night and his advice is to simply take it easy, especially during migration season.”If you see one animal, it’s important to slow down as there’s usually more. I’ve also heard conflicting information and don’t really know if add-on vehicle features are very effective.”In his years of dealing with the issue, Heicher says he learned some reasonably frightening technical data about the seeming inevitability of nighttime crashes.”I’ve heard a lot about what speed it is that you’re actually overdriving the effectiveness of your headlights, and it seems like it’s anything over 35 miles per hour with low beams and just 55 miles per hour with high beams. You just can’t react fast enough, otherwise.”As abhorrent as it may seem, it’s those bloodied remains on the side of the road that might be one of the most effective measures for keeping drivers aware of the danger of animal-auto collisions, especially at peak migration times.”It’s been proven that the best way to slow down drivers is to actually see the carcasses by the roadway,” says Bill Andre. “Look what happens when you see a bloody smear on the highway you take your foot off the gas. It’s like you suddenly realize, ‘Oh yeah, there are probably deer and elk out there.’Autobahn-style transects of the valley’s roadways don’t help matters much, he adds.”As speeds go up, I’m actually surprised there aren’t more fatalities, but maybe those big SUVs do protect people. Now that we have moose in the Vail Valley, I’m not sure what will happen. Maybe a couple of lives lost will drastically change people’s perceptions.”Jim Pitkin, area maintenance foreman for CDOT, says his crews try to act quickly and effectively to remove animals from the roadway responding to either citizen complaints or calls from law enforcement agencies.”We normally only get calls if the animals are in the road or they’re causing a hazard,” Pitkin says. “If they’re out of sight and they do start to create an odor, we’ll also take care of the problem. Usually we take the remains to local landfills that will actually take them, but that doesn’t always happen, so often we’ll have to take them to rural areas, on our property, and dispose of them that way and let nature take its course.”Animal control measures are anything but foolproof, and expensive to maintain, as well. Heicher says that cost alone plus the usual hassles of budgetary limitations mean that the state sometimes scrimps when it comes to doing something as simple as fixing fences.”It all comes out of a line-item budget and they only have X number of dollars to do everything from fencing to underpasses there’s no dedicated funding source for animal safety,” Heicher says. “When they build a fence, it has to be maintained, and the biggest problem is that they don’t maintain those fences. Sometimes it seems like the maintenance people don’t care.”Particularly gruesome evidence of animal deaths can, however, can provide an immediate incentive for maintenance or even help prompt a safety project, says Andre.”The last major stretch of deer fence that was put up in our area was the fence from Eagle to Red Canyon, which went up in 1995. We had so many deer killed in that area before; in that case, it was literally the result of legislators themselves traveling the highway who got sick of seeing so many dead animals at the side of the road suddenly we were able to get the money to complete the project.”But it’s true that the fences don’t get well maintained,” he continues. “Things have gotten better in the last 10 years, but there’s still plenty of places, especially on the north side of Dowd Junction, where the holes haven’t been fixed it’s time-consuming and it costs a lot of money to fix. Thankfully, any holes that happen when cars go through seem to get fixed.”Andre says members of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and a similar bighorn sheep-related group made an effort this fall to begin adopting deer fences throughout the state, much like the adopt-a-highway signs ubiquitous across North America. Unfortunately, he says, the group ran into more government red tape and the proposal has yet to be realized.Andre also says that new and improved versions of the Dowd Junction underpass are included as part of the environmental impact statements included in the array of options for future work on I-70. Along Vail Pass, the issue will be a tough one, especially as plans will also have to mesh with efforts taken to collect or reduce the stream-poisoning effects of so much traction sand on the steepest sections of roadway.”Vail Pass doesn’t actually get a whole lot of road kill problems, but unfortunately, all of the best ideas for helping the animals also run into problems with snow and sand removal. Any steep banks to help keep the sand in make it harder and harder for the critters to get through we’re also looking into ways to create small openings in the Jersey barriers in the middle of the roadway to allow smaller animals like porcupines and squirrels to cross the road.”Andre says his dream for the corridor would be major sections not unlike the technologically advanced (and especially expensive) section of the Trans-Canada Highway running through Banff National Park, which features extensive use of vehicle tunnels and natural-styled animal overpasses. Lower, heavily enforced highway speeds in Canada’s mountain parks (55 miles per hour or lower) also seem to provide an added element of safety a notion that seems incompatible with legal limits of 75 miles per hour and the considerably faster speeds normal on I-70.Animal versus human behaviorCDOT is also experimenting with a couple of new strategies to help lessen the number of impacts between cars and larger animals. Jim Nall, regional traffic and safety engineer for CDOT’s Grand Junction office, says pilot projects near Craig and Montrose hope to address both human and animal behavior.”In Montrose, we understand that 90 percent of the accidents occur in October and November and 90 percent of those happen in darkness hours, so we’re planning to concentrate our efforts on that period, rather than spreading them out for the rest of the year,” Nall says. “We looked at the accident rates for Region 3 and Montrose was one of the worst deer/car incident areas.”CDOT’s plan will include the very specific placement of portable, radar-equipped variable message signs the kind prominent in Glenwood Canyon in a short stretch where animal migration is at its most intense.”The messages will be pretty simple, saying this is high time for migration and asking people to slow down 10 to 15 miles per hour for the next 10 miles.”In Craig, the strategy will be aimed at the animals themselves, with new reflectors placed along the roadside. Each reflector acts as a laser-styled prism, reflecting vehicle headlights into beams visible only to animals preparing to cross the highway. Nall says the hope is that deer and elk at the roadside will be able to more safely cross the roadways; when it comes to behavioral control, it may be easier to focus the efforts on humans.”I’ve done research on what’s being done in other states and really, there’s not many very effective ways of trying to control the number of incidents, so we really have to concentrate on human behavior,” Nall says. “We as a department need to do a better job of getting information out to people and provide more useful information about where and when to be careful if you put up signs year-round that only have meaning two or three months out of the year, it doesn’t work. I think we should also do public ad campaigns or think about concepts like flip-down signs.”Nall says the test projects will likely take two to three years to show much indication of improvement, before being adopted state-wide.Even with site-specific signage, getting motorists to be more cautious and aware of their speed seems to be something of an uphill battle.”Hopefully the locals will learn to slow down, but if you drive to Wolcott every day, you tend to forget about any safety warning,” Andre says. “You also have to contend with all of the people who are passing through on I-70 from other parts of the country who may never have been in the mountains before and have no idea what to expect on our roads.”And despite the best of intentions and safety planning, some admit that road kill is just part of the game in a land where cars are big and fast and wildlife is abundant just be glad we don’t have roadways covered with kangaroos or the scourge of the Texas turnpike, the tire-busting armadillo.”Most normal people think it’s awful, but for me, it’s just a fact of life,” says Heicher. “I just drove up to North Dakota for the holidays and it was kind of an interesting sidelight to see the type and variety of dead animals along the road. You could act like a kid and count the raccoons and badgers and such.” VT By Andy StonehouseIn the Meantime Good Eatin’While it might have the ring of one of those particularly distasteful T-shirts from Texas (“you kill it, we grill it”), Colorado does allow for the legal consumption of certain types and classes of roadkill, usually larger animals such as deer and elk. Permits, available from the Department of Wildlife or law enforcement agencies, provide the slightly opportunistic a chance to get some fresh flesh provided they’re the first on the scene and whatever animal has been hit has not been so badly damaged internally as to create a potential health issue.Bill Andre, district wildlife manager for CDOW, says the permits allow people to take the animals for consumption, but not trophy-mounting anything with commercial value is out of the picture.”We generally don’t give permits for sheep, goats, mountain lions, bears or such,” he says. “And there’s also provisions preventing people from taking six-point bulls or elk with a 20-inch rack. If they just want meat, it’s okay, but we don’t allow them to take the heads.”On local roadways, Andre says the permits are surprisingly popular, with approximately 60 percent of freshly killed elk taken away for meat and about 10 percent of the deer.