Vail pursues emergency safety fencing to keep bighorn sheep off roads
Previous attempts by the town and CPW to prevent the sheep from entering the highway have had limited success
Vail and the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife are eyeing temporary emergency fencing in East Vail to protect upper valley’s beleaguered herd of bighorn sheep from motorized vehicles.
A bighorn sheep was killed by a moving vehicle in East Vail on March 29. It’s the second sheep fatality recorded in that area over the last four months, although the town’s release said three bighorn sheep have been lost in recent months due to vehicle collisions.
Randy Hampton with the Colorado Department of Wildlife said a district wildlife manager was in the area at the time and responded to the incident immediately, collecting the female sheep from the eastbound lane of I-70, where it was killed.
A male sheep was killed on the westbound off-ramp at I-70 exit 180 in December when sheep were also gathering near the highway.
Before that, it had been a number of years since a sheep was known to have been hit and killed in the area, said Devin Duval, Colorado Parks and Wildlife district wildlife manager.
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In December, retired Colorado Parks and Wildlife official Bill Andree said bighorn sheep get hit by vehicles in that area “every couple of years.”
Andree said true numbers are uncertain as it can be hard to tell just how a bighorn died, particularly if the animal made it back to the hillside and the carcass has been scavenged.
Fencing as a last resort
The town of Vail is working with the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife to install temporary fencing along the north side of the North Frontage Road in an attempt to keep the sheep from accessing any roadway.
As designed, the fencing will run from the East Vail Interchange along the north side of the North Frontage Road west to Katsos Road. The town is in the process of obtaining the relevant permitting to install the 8-feet tall temporary fence within the right-of-way. Construction will begin immediately upon approval and will remain in place until the middle or end of June.
The town has contracted with Strategic Fence & Co. for the approximately $18,000 project — which the town of Vail is funding. During construction, the westbound Frontage Road shoulder will be closed for one to two days.
While wildlife fencing is not an ideal solution, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, officials have deemed an emergency measure. Duval said, in the town’s release, that typically wildlife fencing is discouraged unless the fencing can be installed permanently with no breaks, 8 feet tall to prevent animals from jumping over it, and run the entire length of the town, similar to the I-70 highway fencing west of Vail.
However, because the East Vail sheep herd are regularly present in the area and have been drawn to the application of magnesium chloride on the interstate, the most appropriate measure at this time is to create a physical barrier in this location.
Previous attempts by the town and CPW to prevent the sheep from entering the highway have included the use of predator scent, directional sound deterrents, code enforcement officers and flashing signs — all with limited success. Mineral lick placements, while discussed, are not a preferred option, according to CPW, due to disease transmission, predation risks, habituation and increased degradation of winter habitat. The town will continue to explore additional solutions with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Due to the increased pressure of public presence in the area and the critical time of year as the ewes head into lambing season, the sheep are particularly stressed. The town and CPW ask the public to please avoid hiking, walking and backcountry skiing in the area near the East Vail rockfall berm, and near Booth and Pitkin Creek trails. If you must walk in the area, all dogs must be on leash.
Recent sheep death
CPW is conducting an investigation into the most recent sheep accident, on March 29k, but Vail Police also responded and were able to put together an account of what happened from witnesses in the area, one of which was a Vail Code Enforcement officer. The officer arrived after receiving a call from a member of the public, who said bighorn sheep had been gathering in the median.
“Traffic heading west had slowed down significantly due to the Code Enforcement marked truck having the emergency lights activated,” said Ryan Kenney with the Vail Police Department. “The (code enforcement officer) went on I-70 to further slow traffic. At the same time, the sheep ran west toward VMS and then north. At the North Frontage Road guard rail, the sheep appeared to be preparing to leap over the rail when they saw a vehicle and a bicyclist on the road. The sheep became startled and ran south across the Interstate. The traffic heading eastbound saw the sheep and slowed down. However, a semi-truck could not avoid hitting one sheep as it attempted to slow. One sheep was hit and died immediately. The semi did not stop and continued eastbound. We were unable to get any identifying numbers off the truck. The rest of the sheep headed back north from Exit 180 and made it safely across the Interstate and across North Frontage Road.”
A witness in the area said there were approximately 40 sheep on the interstate at one point on Sunday, with another 30 or so gathered on the hillside.
The East Vail herd of bighorn sheep received a new spotlight in 2019 when a controversial development sought to convert a piece of bighorn habitat in the area into a high-density housing development.
In January, the Vail Town Council directed the town manager to meet with the development team to look for an alternative site for the development. Also in January, the council explored ways to work with both Colorado Parks & Wildlife and the Colorado Department of Transportation to keep bighorn sheep off the roads in East Vail.