Fence to keep wildlife off highway
As sure as winter temperatures start to arrive and the snow begins to fall, throngs of deer and elk will descend to the bottomlands of the Roaring Fork Valley south of Glenwood Springs, where they’ll make their homes for the winter.
But they must share that habitat with a busy state highway leading to the resort town of Aspen, and it’s not always a peaceful coexistence. A four-mile stretch of Colorado Highway 82 between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale was the site of 39 animal-vehicle collisions in 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, the Colorado Department of Transportation says. That’s 63 percent of all accidents along that stretch that year.
With high season for road- kill fast approaching, a state contractor is working on a project aimed at improving safety along that four-mile death zone. Thanks to federal hazard-elimination funding secured by the state, Waterford Corp. is building miles of fencing designed to keep deer and elk off the roadway, along with several one-way ramps that will allow them to escape the highway corridor should they manage to get in it.
Crews also will install deer guards, which are similar to cattle guards, to keep big game from getting through breaches in fencing at access roads along the highway. The Department of Transportation is spending $1 million for the work and getting more miles of fencing than it originally had hoped because of more competitive bidding as a result of the recession, said Roland Wagner, a resident engineer in the Department of Transportation’s Glenwood Springs office.
Meanwhile, the state Transportation Commission has authorized spending another $1.5 million to extend fencing farther up-valley on Colorado 82, past Carbondale. That money will come from the FASTER bill, which is generating new highway funds through increases in vehicle registration fees.
The current project expands on some more limited efforts to use fencing and ramps on the same stretch of Colorado 82. It reflects successes in using such approaches elsewhere, such as on U.S. Highway 550 near Ridgway State Park.
It’s also one of a number of approaches state transportation officials have been evaluating as they try to reduce a significant safety threat, not just to wildlife, but to motorists.
A 2006 study focused on improving Colorado’s highway safety found animal collisions to be the third-highest cause of accidents in the state in the prior three years, behind only inattentive driving and exceeding safe speeds.
The Department of Transportation says there were 30,245 reported animal-vehicle collisions on Colorado roadways from 1995-2005. From 1993-2004, such collisions resulted in 29 people dying and at least 2,241 being injured.
State statistics under-count animal-vehicle collisions because they don’t include those cases that motorists don’t report.
Using its insurance claims data, State Farm recently said 24-month deer-vehicle collision counts increased 18.3 percent over five years nationally, and they increased 19 percent in Colorado. It blamed the national increase on growing deer populations and urban sprawl that displaces their habitat.
“I see roadkill, and it bums me out,” Wagner said.
Frosty Merriott shares Wagner’s sentiments. An accountant, Carbondale trustee and chairman of the Roaring Fork Group of the Sierra Club’s Wildlife Committee, Merriott has been pushing for a decade for measures to reduce the carnage along Colorado 82 and other roads.
“I just love wildlife, and I cannot stand the waste of this, the pain that the animals, a lot of them, suffer before they die,” he said.
Merriott is happy to see the new fencing project, but adds it’s important to provide underpasses and overpasses as means for wildlife to get across highways.
“Ultimately, the animals will go around the fence if they want to get to the other side,” he said.
Merriott also argues for better planning for wildlife in future road projects and for nighttime speed-limit reductions along highways with lots of animal collisions.
The Department of Transportation has been exploring the idea of nighttime speed limits, but with inconclusive results.
In a pilot program begun in 2005, it imposed a nighttime limit of 55 mph, down from 65 mph, on state Colorado Highway 13 from Rifle to the Wyoming border.
Between 1999 and 2003 on that highway, which has seen increasing traffic related to energy development, there were 760 animal-vehicle accidents, more than all other accident types combined. Nearly two-thirds of the accidents involving animals were at night, even though only 20 percent of vehicle travel on the road was at night.
The good news is that the number of nighttime animal-vehicle accidents on Highway 13 has fallen since the speed reduction.
Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation can’t tie the drop directly to the speed limit, because the number of daytime collisions with wildlife has decreased on the road as well, and a second study showed motorist speeds still average 65 mph at night.
By comparison, nighttime and daytime wildlife collisions have fallen on stretches of Colorado Highway 40 east of Craig and Colorado 82 that also have been traditional road kill hotspots. Nighttime speedlimits hadn’t been reduced in those two areas.
The Department of Transportation has continued with the Colorado 13 experiment, which originally was planned to last one year. But agency spokeswoman Nancy Shanks said that for now, anyway, it doesn’t have the kind of solid data that would justify lowering nighttime speed limits on roads where animal-vehicle collisions are a problem.
Merriott would like to see state lawmakers impose such limits, even though he said a bill to accomplish that has failed in the Legislature in the past.
“I just don’t think God created these creatures for us to run over in our vehicles because we’re in such a damn hurry to go somewhere,” he said.
State Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, said she heard from Merriott and other constituents concerned about how many animals die on Colorado 82. She said she wants to look into why the idea of nighttime speed limits didn’t pass legislative muster in the past, and she wants to make sure reduced speed limits wouldn’t result in unintended consequences.
Said Shanks, “No one’s saying that lowering the speed limit would not help. I think it’s just (a matter of) obeying that speed limit.”
Capt. Richard Duran of the Colorado State Patrol’s Glenwood Springs office said speed limit enforcement can be hit or miss, and can depend on the number of troopers available to dedicate to it.
Generally speaking, he said, “I tend to go toward lower speeds” as a means of reducing collisions with wildlife.
The Department of Transportation is exploring a range of other approaches, from use of warning lights activated by moving animals, to clearing brush along roadways, to installation of underpasses, such as in Snowmass Canyon on Colorado 82.
A federal earmark resulted in about $500,000 going to design work on a wildlife overpass on Interstate 70 above Vail, but no funding has been identified for completion of design or construction, Shanks said.
Duran said fencing has been a big help, but it’s important to provide wildlife an alternative for crossing highways, such as underpasses or overpasses.
Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said as fencing is increasingly installed, the Division of Wildlife will have to make recommendations on where underpasses and overpasses may be appropriate to maintain wildlife access to historical ranges.
In some cases, the most feasible approach may be for the Department of Transportation to designate certain areas as wildlife crossings and use signs to warn motorists, he said.
Particularly at this time of year, as more wildlife drop down to winter ranges and commuters drive in the dark, it’s important for people to heed warnings and slow down, Hampton said.
“They put those signs up for a reason, and people need to pay attention to them,” he said.