I-70 animal overpass stalled by state funding crunch

A proposed bridge to breach the “Berlin Wall for wildlife” on Interstate 70 near Vail Pass is apparently another piece of economic road kill, state highway and wildlife officials said Monday.

An $8 million to $15 million bridge landscaped with trees, grass and bushes suitable for the north-south migration of deer, elk, foxes, coyotes and bears has been in the works for years. But it’s still languishing in the design stage despite the increasing danger of large wildlife crossing I-70 between national forest lands on both sides of the state’s major east-west mountain highway.

“What we’re looking for are any solutions for Interstate 70, which is the Berlin Wall for wildlife in Colorado,” Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said. “I-70 really does divide the state and is a challenge because of the fact that it really cuts the heart of some of our herds.”

A wildlife underpass near I-70 in Eagle-Vail. (Photo/David O. Williams)Since the completion of I-70 through Eagle County in the 1970s, Hampton said deer and elk herds have had to deal with a split habitat dividing winter and summer ranges in the north and south. The search for food, particularly in the winter months, has led to increasing carnage on I-70 the last several years.

“Had the herds fully adjusted [to the interstate] we wouldn’t see the amount of road kill we see, and it certainly is considerable, especially this past winter when the snows were extremely heavy and the animals were concentrated near the highway,” Hampton said. “With little cars, an elk at 65 or 70 mph is definitely a life-threatening incident for driver and elk.”

A wildlife overpass on Vail Pass would better connect important habitat to the north and south of the interstate in the Holy Cross and Eagle’s Nest wilderness areas, environmental groups say, saving the lives of wildlife and humans. But with state highway dollars dwindling, Colorado Department of Transportation officials say there simply isn’t any money for the project.

A wildlife ramp on Highway 550 near Ridgway. (Photo/Colorado Dept of Transportation) “We’re studying and partially designing it right now,” CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shank said. “There was an earmark that the Southern Rockies Ecosystems Project got a state a legislator to designate for us to design this, but right now there’s no money to build it. It’s being designed for a particular location, and the money will take us as far as a partial design.”

Colorado’s lawmakers say finding money for basic upkeep of the state’s road system will be difficult enough in the coming years, let alone money for special projects like a wildlife overpass.

“We have 122 bridges that are in some state of being rated defective, we have upwards of 40 percent of our roads in poor condition, and the issues along I-70 are also a priority, so how do we mesh those together and prioritize them in a way that frankly puts public safety at the top of the list?” said state House Rep. Christine Scanlan, whose district includes Eagle County.

Eagle County, home to Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas, has one of the most dangerous stretches for vehicle-wildlife collisions. Last September CDOT began erecting sections of 8-foot wildlife fence on either side of I-70 in certain sections between Wolcott and Eagle.

The $1.7 million project, slated for completion later this year, will include 70 natural ramps that allow animals to cross back over the fences in certain areas so they don’t become trapped between fences on either side of the highway. The idea is to funnel wildlife away from areas where it’s more dangerous to cross.

“How do we keep animals that have to cross in cases where they just don’t have adequate winter range on the north side where their summer range is, or vice versa, from crossing at corners or blind spots or spots that are notoriously bad in the winter from a weather standpoint?” Hampton said.CDOT officials, who say wildlife-vehicle collisions make up nearly 20 percent of the crashes on the stretch of I-70 between Wolcott (20 miles west of Vail) and Eagle (30 miles west of Vail), hope the new fencing will improve the situation dramatically next winter.

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.

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