Group wants wildlife crossing |

Group wants wildlife crossing

Conservationists pushing Vail Pass project to prevent accidents

Dustin Racioppi/Vail Daily

— A wildlife crossing across Vail Pass in Colorado is one of several projects a wildlife conservation group wants to see funded in a proposed federal economic stimulus plan being discussed in Washington, D.C.

The Colorado Safe Passage Coalition – an amalgam of several Colorado conservation groups – is urging the state Department of Transportation to designate 1 percent of its anticipated funds to go specifically to projects that would lower accidents between drivers and animals.

Coalition member Monique DiGiorgio, who is a conservation strategist for Durango-based Western Environmental Law Center, said the money would be used to build bridges, fences and other passages for animals to cross highways safely.

Between 1990 and 2004, the number of reported collisions has doubled, according to a study by the Western Transportation Institute.

In Colorado, accidents resulting in injury, death and property damage have increased from 1,700 in 1998 to nearly 4,000 in 2004, DiGiorgio said in a letter to Department of Transportation Executive Director Russ George. Half of accidents go unreported, she added.

“You’re going to be seeing the trend of animal-vehicle collisions skyrocketing, and we need to be combating this now,” she said. “It’s a safety issue. It’s a quality of life and wildlife issue for all of us in Colorado.”

Creating safe passages for the animals could decrease those cases dramatically, she said. DiGiorgio said Canada has decreased its collision rate by 80 percent since building them.

The coalition thinks spending for the crossings now would save money in the long run. A news release from the coalition said that crashes with animals costs Americans about $8 billion a year.

“The cost is huge. Not to mention the lives that are lost, both human and animal, are tremendous,” DiGiorgio said.

The sliver of money that may become available is a worthy investment when taking those numbers into consideration, according to the group of conservationists.

“There’s lots of wildlife in Colorado that essentially is threatened by habitat fragmentation,” said Josh Pollock, executive director for the Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver. “It’s actually pretty easy to fix that by making some improvements to our highway, our underpasses, overpasses and such.”

But there’s no telling how much money will be designated for those improvements, if at all. DiGiorgio’s letter to George estimated between $400 million and $700 million at the federal level.

The Vail Pass bridge across Interstate 70 would cost an estimated $7 million, making it the most expensive project on the horizon, Colorado Wild Executive Director Ryan Demmy Bidwell said.

“But it’s been identified as an important priority, and a lot of money has already been put into it,” he said.

Heavy travel and new development raises the need to provide an alternative to the bears, lynx, elk and moose that try to cross the highway, Pollock said.

Since lynx have been reintroduced to the region, Pollock said there’s been a few killed on the pass.

Then there’s the climate change factor. Pollock said as temperatures rise, so do the animals, who will be retreating to higher elevations, such as Vail, in the future.

“It’s going to be that much more critical that we maintain the ability for our wildlife to move around the region and seek secure habitat,” he said.

Trish White, of the national conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, is working from the Washington, D.C., with the coalition to help strengthen its case to get the money.

Although she’s making recommendations and providing input to the coalition, lobbyists all are fighting for their own state or group’s cause to get their cut of the money, White said.

“What I’m hearing is every single state is making that wish list,” she said. “Everybody’s gearing up.”

DiGiorgio thinks the projects the coalition has proposed have a good chance of receiving funding because a lot of the Western states already have invested in animal passage projects.

“Colorado just needs to take an initiative and get this 1 percent,” she said. “It’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction, and it shows that Colorado is serious.”

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