This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
For many years, wildlife advocates have pushed and pulled to get better wildlife crossings on Interstate 70’s westbound lanes on the east side of Vail Pass.
Their mission has been amplified as a first-of-its-kind wildlife crossing project on nearby Colorado 9 between Kremmling and Green Mountain Reservoir slashed wildlife collisions by more than 90%. And now, thanks to $5.5 million in state funding and the federal Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program offering grants, the wildlife champions are sketching three new wildlife crossings on Vail Pass above Copper Mountain.
“There’s been a sea change nationally in thinking about these issues and the value they bring,” said Julia Kintsch, a longtime wildlife researcher and the board president for Summit County Safe Passages, which is spearheading the development of underpasses and overpasses for wandering wildlife on Vail Pass. “As someone who has been working on wildlife crossing stuff for 20 years, it’s night and day.”
The Federal Highway Administration estimates there are more than 1 million wildlife-vehicle collisions every year in the U.S., costing about $8 billion as well as tens of thousands of injuries and hundreds of fatalities. The Colorado Department of Transportation collected 7,338 carcasses off Colorado roads in 2022.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 set aside $350 million in funds for wildlife crossing projects through 2026. Colorado lawmakers in 2022 approved a $5 million fund — through Senate Bill 151 — to help the CDOT plan and build wildlife crossings.
In 2016, CDOT, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and partners completed a $50 million improvement to Colorado 9 that included a pioneering wildlife crossing project on 11 miles between Kremmling and Green Mountain Reservoir. A five-year study showed the two overpasses and five underpasses lined by 10.3 miles of eight-foot fencing with 61 wildlife escape ramps reduced wildlife collisions on the stretch of highway by 92%.
CDOT’s latest annual report of wildlife killed on Colorado’s roads shows 4,588 deer killed by collisions with cars in 2022. The report shows 654 elk killed by vehicles and 246 bears. Those numbers involve road crews picking up carcasses and are well below the actual number of wildlife deaths involving unreported collisions and animals that die farther from the roadway after being struck.
Studies show about 2% of Colorado’s female deer are killed in collisions with vehicles. In most seasons, that means cars kill more does than hunters on Colorado’s Western Slope.
A five-year study of the wildlife crossings on Colorado 9 showed 112,678 mule deer passages — among 16 total species that used the crossings — along a stretch of highway that typically saw more than 60 animals killed every winter.
Billionaire investor Paul Tudor Jones kicked off funding for the Colorado 9 project, which bisected his Blue Valley Ranch. The investor’s $4 million matching grant helped communities and donors raised another $5.5 million for the wildlife crossings. There’s hope that state and federal dollars similarly can kick-start fundraising for the crossings on Vail Pass.
Summit County Safe Passages research shows 3,600 wildlife-vehicle accidents in Colorado every year, resulting in 266 human injuries, $80 million in damage and medical costs. The group estimates about 3,000 wildlife collisions go unreported every year.
The Vail Pass plan is being studied right now as standalone projects that are not part of improvements to the highway. That’s a bit different than other projects, like the crossings installed on Colorado 9. The westbound lanes of I-70 on the east side of Vail Pass are a barrier to wildlife, blocking deer, elk and Canada lynx, while the eastbound lanes offer five underpasses for wildlife passage. The Vail Pass initiative calls for $4 million in fencing, a $3 million bridge, a $3.5 million arch underpass and a $8.5 million hourglass-shaped overpass, all located in a four-mile span near the eastbound bridges.
Elissa Slezak, a big game biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said it can take many years for herds to learn new migration routes over wildlife crossings. Mule deer tend to wander over the new routes more quickly while bighorn herds can take 100 years, she said. Once they are learned, the herds can thrive as they expand their habitat.
“Migration routes can be very beneficial to overall herd health and the overall survival of the species,” she said.
The Denver Zoo’s conservation work has used game cameras and researchers to identify 11 species of carnivores within a quarter-mile of I-70 on Vail Pass. That does not include ungulates like mule deer, elk, moose and bighorn sheep.
“Our cameras are busy on the east side of Vail Pass,” said Stefan Ekernas, the director of Colorado Field Conservation for the Denver Zoo. “This has been a pipe dream for 20 years until last year when we got the state bill. It’s exciting to see all these pieces come together. So many problems do not have obvious solutions but this is not one of those. This is literally a concrete solution. Yes, it costs a lot in initial investment, but it will cost a lot to not do anything.”
Colorado state Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat from Avon, said he expects lawmakers will continue to fund wildlife crossings, especially since the federal government could match four dollars for every state dollar. Investment in wildlife crossings can save lives and money, Roberts said, noting that insurance companies are stepping up to support funding and projects.
“We added more money this year and I think we will continue to find opportunities to add more,” said Roberts, after a flight with Kintsch and Slezack over Vail Pass to see the potential locations for new crossings on the westbound lanes. “There’s a practical and economic argument for these crossings.”