Wildlife crossing scouted from above | VailDaily.com

Wildlife crossing scouted from above

Maisie Crow/Vail DailyA wildlife overpass has been proposed for the summit of Vail Pass.

VAIL PASS – Twenty people climbed into four small planes Tuesday morning to have a look at a proposed site for a wildlife overpass near the summit of Vail Pass. The idea is to some day – possibly within the next five years – have a vegetated bridge linking wildlife habitats on either side of Interstate 70.Proponents of the project say it would be good for the animals that need to migrate across I-70, as well as for the drivers who all too often run into them.Promoted by environmental groups such as the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project and the Wilderness Workshop, the project also has interest from the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and others. Representatives of both organizations were on hand Tuesday, as were members of Eagle County and Vail governments and the local business community. Representatives for U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar and U.S. Rep Mark Udall were also present.”I thought it was a fascinating idea when I heard about it,” said Adam Aron, chief executive of Vail Resorts, who went up in one of the planes. “If this project gets funded and works, causing safe migration, I think that’s a very good thing.”Aron said Vail Resorts could provide some money, but said he imagined most of the funding would come from government for the project, estimated to cost between $5 million and $9 million.Supporters of the overpass are currently waiting to hear how much money they can expect to get from the federal government. Sloan Shoemaker of Wilderness Workshop said it was not a line item in the new federal highway bill just signed by President Bush.”We’re asking for funds from the Federal Lands Program,” Shoemaker said. “It’s a separate pot designed to address transportation infrastructure needs on federal lands. That way we’re not conflicting with CDOT’s state appropriation request.”

Over the passTuesday’s fliers were able to get an aerial view of the area where the overpass is proposed to be built. Just a few back toward Vail from the Vail Pass summit the bridge, at mile marker 187, would span all four lanes of the interstate and connect wildlife habitat areas that are already protected as part of the National Forest.That, said Monique DiGiorgio at the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project, is key. There’s little point connecting areas that don’t have those protections in place, she said, adding that Tuesday’s flight helped confirm the choice of site.”We’ve been looking at this area for the last eight months, but it was remarkable to see from the air how an overpass could really connect the habitats,” DiGiorgio said. “From the Eagles Nest Wilderness to the north and the other habitats to the south, we could see quite a few large drainages in the area that wildlife are probably already using as corridors.”Adam Palmer, an Eagle County planner who focuses on environmental issues, said overpasses are a proven method of reducing vehicle-animal collisions and deaths.”It seems like the responsible thing to do,” Palmer said of an overpass, adding that the county commissioners are supportive of the idea.”It looks like a great location,” he said. “We’re also interested in improved animal migration downvalley, in the Wolcott area. We see a lot of mortality through that stretch – it’s a meat grinder out there.”

Familiar with roadkillDiGiorgio said the Vail Pass initiative is a pilot project, and that many more such structures will be needed throughout the country to improve the way in which animals and vehicles co-exist. Other projects are in the works in Idaho, California and Wyoming, and many already exist in Canada and Europe. Vail Pass was chosen for a pilot project in Colorado, she said, because of its high visibility and the protected land on both sides. The interstate through the area also has existing elevated spans that already function as paths under the interstate for animals.”The point of this project was to pick an important place that’s highly visible to raise awareness for other projects in the state and around the country,” DiGiorgio said.In addition to the overpass, the project would include about 10 miles of fencing to keep wildlife off the road and divert them toward the crossing. Aron of Vail Resorts said a lot of fencing would detract from the visual experience of those driving over the pass. “If you can move the fence behind the vegetation, everybody wins,” Aron said.

Shoemaker and DiGiorgio said comments such as those from the community would go into the planning. Once the money is in place, DiGiorgio said an extensive study of the area would also be conducted to determine wildlife migration patterns.”This is not a done deal,” she said. “We need to do more monitoring both before and after the structure goes in to see how effective it is.”Shoemaker said positive responses from the office of Eagle County Congressman Mark Udall as well as from the local governments and business community have given the project a push.”We have citizens supporting it from all over Vail and the Roaring Fork Valley, people who see animal mortality all the time,” he said. “They’re excited about a real, proactive solution that can do something about a very real problem.”No one he was aware of, Shoemaker said, has voiced any opposition to the project.Helping out with Tuesday’s flyover was LightHawk, a nonprofit environmental organizations based in Boulder that provides planes and pilots to other groups that need to see things from the air.Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or amiller@vaildaily.com.

============See the sites:www.Restoretherockies.orgwww.Wildernessworkshop.orgwww.Lighthawk.org============Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado

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