Trust Our Land: Creating safe passages for wildlife (column) | VailDaily.com

Trust Our Land: Creating safe passages for wildlife (column)

By Bergen Tjossem Trust Our Land

Sharing our home with wildlife is part of living in the mountains. It’s a piece of our Eagle County identity, and a reason many people moved here in the first place. Our furry friends have been in trouble for some time, but a local coalition focusing on the Safe Passages for Wildlife plan has formed to take action.

Eagle County is growing. According to the state demographer, our population is expected to double in 35 years to nearly 100,000 people. Wildlife has struggled to adapt to the rapid changes in our community. Local elk populations, like other species, have decreased by 50 percent due in part to disturbance, habitat loss and decreasing habitat connectivity. Over 3,000 wildlife collisions are reported each year in Colorado, which only represents a fraction of the total number of animals killed on our roadways.

There is a lot of wildlife habitat in Eagle County, but not all habitat is created equal. Elk, deer, bears, foxes and other animals rely on a diversity of habitats to sustain them throughout the year. In general, elk and deer can move freely in our vast mountain landscapes during warmer months. In winter, they depend on small habitat patches in valley bottoms where they can find food and a relatively shallow snowpack, such as the Eagle River Preserve in Edwards.

Moving between these areas has become increasingly risky for wildlife. Traversing our community means navigating a maze of roads, cars, recreationists, fences, lighting, dogs and other complexities. It isn’t getting easier for them.

Wildlife in Summit County face a similar predicament, but the community found a solution. State Highway 9 in Grand County was notorious for vehicle-wildlife collisions, so a local coalition made a plan, procured funding and built seven wildlife crossings that have reduced collisions by 85 percent.

The Eagle County Safe Passages for Wildlife plan, led by Julia Kintsch, of ECO-resolutions, aims to build on the success and best practices of Summit County’s collaborative effort in our community. Over 15 organizations and agencies have joined the project, which aims to identify and prioritize specific high-volume crossing points where a bridge or culvert could dramatically increase the safety of our roadways for people and wildlife. Near-term infrastructure project priority areas include Interstate 70 West Vail Pass, Interstate 70 Mud Springs (Dowd Junction), State Highway 86 Emma (Basalt) and U.S. Highway 24 between Minturn and Gilman.

The project also aims to leverage partnerships across jurisdictional boundaries to connect wildlife habitat throughout the county, which could help galvanize funding for these and other mitigation projects.

The Eagle Valley Land Trust protects over 10,000 acres of important wildlife habitat in Eagle County including popular recreation areas such as the West Avon Preserve, Miller Ranch Open Space, Brush Creek Ranch and Open Space and the Minturn Boneyard. Community collaboration such as the Safe Passages for Wildlife plan is a critical piece of the conservation equation. Promoting safe passages will help wildlife move between protected habitat throughout the county.

Funding for wildlife-highway mitigation projects largely comes from the Colorado Department of Transportation with support from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, but funding from local stakeholders including towns, the county, businesses, nonprofits and community organizations will help the project be prioritized sooner. EVLT and the Land & Rivers Fund have pledged to help fund the project’s next phase. Private donations and local funding were key components of the project on State Highway 9 and there are plenty of opportunities for our community to support this important effort.

Interested in getting involved? You can join EVLT for volunteer projects in priority areas throughout the summer. Volunteer opportunities will be posted at https://evlt.org/join-us/events/. Contact Jessica Foulis (jfoulis@evlt.org) for more information.

Bergen Tjossem is the communications and fundraising coordinator at the Eagle Valley Land Trust. He can be reached at bergen@evlt.org. EVLT is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. For more about the Eagle Valley Land Trust and how it is conserving land and benefiting the community, visit http://www.evlt.org.