Vail Valley wildlife crossings on highways will require a lot of money, cooperation
VAIL — Creating safe ways for wildlife to cross local highways will be expensive. But the results can be immediate, and dramatic.
Julie Kintsch of ECO-resolutions spent the noon hour Tuesday talking about reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions at Vail’s Grand View meeting room for the town’s latest Lunch with the Locals presentation.
Kintsch is part of an effort called Eagle County Safe Passages for Wildlife. That group is working with local governments, state and federal agencies, nonprofit groups and other private-sector interests to make it easier for animals to get around, particularly in the Eagle River Valley.
Kintsch said while the miles of wildlife fencing along Interstate 70 have helped reduce collisions, there are relatively few places for animals to cross the highway.
There are long bridges in spots along the west side of Vail Pass that allow wildlife unencumbered movement. A handful of long bridges between Eagle and Gypsum serve the same role, with limited success.
Few spots to cross
In between, crossing spots are limited, and of limited usefulness.
There’s a large culvert under the interstate between West Vail and Dowd Junction. But, Kintsch said, that culvert isn’t quite large enough for animals to comfortably use.
There are early plans to expand I-70 on the west side of Vail Pass to accommodate animal migration. But that project is still in its preliminary stages, and there’s no funding currently available.
Still, Kintsch said, big projects are possible, and they can have an almost immediate effect.
Along with talking about efforts in this and other countries, Kintsch spent a good bit of time talking about an ambitious and recent highway crossing project in Grand County.
That project, along State Highway 9 between Silverthorne and Kremmling, has put up miles of wildlife fencing, as well as a number of crossing sites, including two overpasses and five underpasses.
That stretch of highway was once one of the most dangerous in the state for wildlife-vehicle collisions.
In the decade before the 2015 completion of the project’s first phase, there had been more than 650 wildlife-vehicle collisions on that stretch of the highway. From 1995 — 2015, 16 human fatalities had occurred.
Those accidents fell dramatically after the first phase was complete, and fell even more after the project was finished in 2016. In fact, wildlife-vehicle accidents dropped by about 85 percent.
Cooperation is key
But getting to the point of construction wasn’t easy, and required work from a lot of agencies and individuals.
Kintsch said a lot of credit goes to Paul T. Jones, owner of the Blue Valley Ranch. In total, the ranch contributed nearly $5 million for design work and construction costs. It also contributed right-of-way for wildlife crossings.
But, Kintsch said, the project required more than just the deep pockets of one ranch owner.
When the Colorado Department of Transportation agreed to fund the Highway 9 project, that agency required a 20 percent investment from local interests.
Blue Valley Ranch put up $4 million as a matching grant, and another $5.5 million was raised in just 45 days. Kintsch said that money was raised from individuals and the towns of Kremmling and Silverthorne. Grand County put in the remaining $2.1 million.
While some wildlife crossings can take a few seasons for animals to acclimate, the mule deer using the Highway 9 crossing started using the overpasses and underpasses almost immediately.
Partnerships like the one that made the Highway 9 project possible will be needed in Eagle County, Kintsch said. But good planning and prioritization are also essential.
Eagle County has a plan that accommodates wildlife crossings. Kintsch said the work is going to require working with state and federal agencies, as well as with towns and other counties.
It will be hard to coordinate need and funding. But Kintsch said if she could choose the first projects, they’d be at Dowd Junction and on Vail Pass.
And, while better freedom of movement isn’t the only answer to rebuilding Eagle County’s wildlife herds, Kintsch said it’s an important part of the larger answer.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at email@example.com or 970-748-2930.
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A Nov. 30 to Governor Polis and the Eagle County Commissioners from Beaver Creek Resorts Company – as well as the towns of Vail, Avon, Eagle and Minturn – requests a variance program which would allow businesses to remain open.