Mountain Town News: The Berlin Wall of wildlife |

Mountain Town News: The Berlin Wall of wildlife

Allen Best
Mountain Town News
Allen Best, author of Mountain Town News.
Courtesy of Allen Best

New plans for dismantling the Berlin Wall to wildlife

VAIL PASS, Colo. — In the late 1990s, people concerned about wildlife mortality took to calling Interstate 70 the Berlin Wall wildlife in Colorado. They had hard evidence for the name.

In 1999, lynx were reintroduced into Colorado, at locations in the San Juan Mountains. On a hot summer day just a few months later, one of them was squashed on I-70 near the summit of Vail Pass. It had wandered several hundred miles north, but it could not get across the freeway.

In 2004, a wolf had wandered south from Wyoming across the Red Desert and several mountain ranges. Once in Colorado it could not get across I-70. Its carcass was found near Idaho Springs. It was the first confirmed wolf in Colorado in decades.

Now come new efforts to continue to create both overpasses and underpasses on Vail Pass.

On the west side of Vail Pass, wildlife mitigation will be included in plans for building 10 miles of auxiliary lanes between Vail and the summit of the pass. John Kronholm, a design team manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation, says discussion with stakeholders have settles on two larger underpasses—for deer, elk, and moose—and several smaller underpasses, such as for lynx. The science behind what will work best continues to evolve, says Kronholm, but the underpasses range from simple corrugated metal arches to concrete boxes.

The environmental assessment will be wrapped up next spring, he said, but nothing will be final until both C-DOT and the Federal Highway Administration sign off on the plans. But funding is another matter. It’s behind several other even more expensive projects planned to increase the capacity of I-70 between Denver and Summit County.

East of the summit of Vail Pass, one overpass and two underpasses have been identified as necessary to provide landscape connectivity for a breeding population of lynx as well as other species. The structures, if built, would be on the west-bound lanes, as the east-bound lanes have several broad spans, essentially bridges, that allow wildlife to pass underneath.

Vail Pass has been identified as a high priority by Summit County Safe Passages, a coalition of local, state, and federal agencies, plus private companies and environmental and other advocacy organizations.

Julia Kintsch, a consulting conservation biologist, says preliminary engineering and cost estimates will likely begin before summer’s end. That work will be paid for with $190,000 in funding from Vail Resorts and Arapahoe Basin. The two ski area operators had been required to pay for wildlife mitigation projects relative to impacts caused by their terrain expansions, in the case of Vail Resorts for its expansion at Breckenridge.

As on the west side of Vail Pass, no money has been allocated for construction. However, Kintsch points to the partnerships with Summit County Safe Passages as foundational for future work. The diversity of government and non-government partners “can really accelerate these types of projects,” she says.

Highway 9 between Silverthorne and Kremmling provides an example of partnerships at work. The Colorado Department of Transportation wanted to straighten and widen a 10.5-mile segment of the highway between Kremmling and Green Mountain Reservoir. It’s a valley thick with sagebrush and large populations of mule deer and occasionally elk during winter.

Lingering memories of a 1985 accident were a motivation for the highway upgrade. A pickup driving on the two-lane highway swerved—to avoid hitting a deer, the driver said—and smacked head-on into the compact car carrying Gene and Mimi Ritschard. The couple, who lived on a ranch along the Colorado River, had been driving home from a water meeting. They died instantly.

Paul Jones, the wealthy owner of the Blue Valley Ranch, near where the tragedy occurred, donated $1 million to get the planning and fundraising going. The Colorado Department of Transportation itself said the money had to come from elsewhere. Jones donated another $4 million and other private citizens donated $2.1 million, Grand County gave $3.1 million, and other local governments—Kremmling, Silverthorne, and Summit County—added $360,000.

This produced 2 overpasses, 5 underpasses, tall fences to funnel the deer to the crossing structures, and other infrastructure.

Evidence has been accumulating of the success. In the five years before 2015, when the structures were mostly installed, roadside surveys revealed an average 56.4 carcasses per year. Since then, the surveys have yielded 6 carcasses per year.

With those and other statistics in store, Summit County Safe Passages approached the Summit County commissioners with a proposal. Safe Passages has identified two more crossings on Highway 9 in addition to the work on the east side of Vail Pass as high priorities. One overpass would be between Green Mountain Reservoir and Silverthorne, and the other between Breckenridge and Hoosier Pass. Both would benefit deer, elk, moose, and other large animals.

Kate Berg, a senior planner for Summit County, said the goal of a resolution proposed for adoption by the commissioners would be to incorporate the critical wildlife passages into the county master plan and other documents.

With success proven, calls for more wildlife overpasses

BAYFIELD, Colo. – Colorado wildlife officials expect a widening of U. S. Highway 160 between Pagosa Springs and Durango to include features to help keep hooves away from hoods.

The project near Chimney Rock National Monument will include two wildlife crossing structures, one of which may be an overpass, with the other sure to be an underpass. New fencing will be designed to influence animals to move to the overpass, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. Construction is to begin in 2020.

The Southern Ute Tribe has committed to spending $1 million, Colorado Parks and Wildlife $75,000, and the National Wildlife Foundation $317,000 to supplement funding by C-DOT.

The highway splits summer big-game range and the Weminuche wilderness to the north and excellent winter range—mainly on the Southern Ute lands—to the south.

This will supplement another underpass of U. S. 160 farther west, between Durango and Bayfield. In the 10 years prior to its completion in 2016, C-DOT documented 472 vehicle-wildlife collisions, mostly involving mule deer. Many collisions go unreported.

Mark Lawler, a biologist with the Colorado Department of Transportation, said that research throughout the world shows clearly that underpasses and overpasses dramatically lead to a decline in collisions.

“At the new underpass we’re seeing a large number of mule deer going through the structure daily,” Lawler said. “Animals are using the structure; we’re not just moving the problem.”

At least two crossings in the works in Jackson Hole

JACKSON, Wyo. – Two wildlife crossings on the highway between Jackson and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort are planned, and two more are possible. At least one would be a 100-foot-long span bridge 15 feet above the highway.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide reports several high-profile collisions with moose on this highway. In addition, as county and town officials ready a proposed tax increase to voters this fall, there has been some discussion about how much money will supplement state work on improving wildlife connectivity.

Another wolf in Colorado, but no evidence of a date

WALDEN, Colo. – Coloradans visiting Wyoming is not news. They’re called “greenies” in Wyoming, because of Colorado’s white-and-green license plates.

But one particular tourist from Wyoming to Colorado has attracted plenty of attention. Colorado Parks & Wildlife announced last week that a male gray wolf recently sighted in Colorado’s North Park had come from the Snake River pack. The pack normally dens just inside Yellowstone National Park. In February, the Wyoming Game and Fish’s telemetry instrumentation last recorded this particular wolf being near South Pass, at the southern tip of the Wind River Range.

It’s not the first dispersing male wolf from Wyoming since reintroduction of the species in the Yellowstone area in the 1990s. The first known wolf arrived in Colorado in 2004, and there have been several since.

But unless these lone male wolves bring dates, wildlife biologists say, there’s no real chance for a permanent population in Colorado. Colorado’s wildlife commission two years ago heard again a proposal to reintroduce wolves, but, as before, said—no, not now.

Virtual reality tour of coal mine to include sounds, too

CANMORE, Alberta — The preserve that became Banff National Park was created by the Canadian government in 1885. The next year, the first coal mine opened at Canmore, which today lies at the eastern entrance to the national park and is, in its own right, a thriving tourism town with a large component of vacation and weekend homes.

The last coal mine closed in 1979, but a new exhibit at the Mine at the Canmore Museum and Geoscience Centre seeks to give visitors a sense of what it was like to be in those coal mines. Jerry Auld, the animator, talked with former miners, most of whom had not been inside a coal mine since 1979, to get the details just right, or as close as possible for a virtual reality tour of what being inside the mine would have been like in the 1930s.

“After all these years, they still have that visceral reaction, like a survival reaction to go in and just be totally aware,” Auld told the Rocky Mountain Outlook. “They are not just walking through as participants, they’re really active in that mine.”

Those taking the virtual reality tour will not only see the interior of the coal mine, but also hear what the miners head. Auld said visuals sometimes are less compelling than sounds.

“We worked really, really hard with the miners to make sure whether it’s the sound of the timbers cracking, if it’s the sound of water, or if it’s the sound of heavy equipment, that it’s as real as possible,” said Jason Gariepy, the museum executive director.

When the last coal mine closed in July 1979, Canmore was a town of 3,000 residents. Today it has about 14,000 residents, not counting the weekenders.

Among resort towns in the Rockies, Crested Butte was very much a coal town, but the Big Mine closed in 1952, and the ski area opened 9 years later. Coal mining occurred until 1992 near Carbondale, located 30 miles down-valley from Aspen. Coal mining still occurs at Twentymile Mine, Colorado’s largest coal mine, located 20 miles from Steamboat Springs.

Town crimping tobacco, but what about alcohol?

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — Not surprisingly, elected officials in Crested Butte have received some pushback as they consider asking voters to approve new taxes on tobacco products. John Penn, who has a store called The Tobacconist, told the council members they will put him out of business.

“It takes an $8 cigar and turns it into a $15 cigar. Tourists won’t accept this. These are all personal choices. And the people who vape don’t buy cigarettes. All this money you talk about collecting, how will it help me pay my rent.”

The Crested Butte News reports this interchange between Mayor Jim Schmidt and Penn: “No offense to your business, John, but to me this is about health,” said Schmidt.

“Health? You guys push alcohol like crazy in this town,” responded Penn. It’s all over your website. You want to talk about health? It’s choices, and you choose to promote alcohol in this community.”

The premise for the tobacco taxes came from Kyle Tibbett, a tobacco health educator with the Gunnison County Health and Human Services Department. He said 30% of local kids report using vapes. “It’s been shown that price increases will have the largest impact on deterring youth, not so much the tourists or older users.”

Four of the six council members approved taking the proposed packages of taxes to voters in November.

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