Wildlife-vehicle collisions continuing concern in Yampa Valley
A highly successful project on Colorado Highway 9 between Kremmling and Green Mountain Reservoir has been a huge win for wildlife and driver safety after reducing wildlife-vehicle crashes by 92%.
The multimillion-dollar project has become the envy of drivers, and it’s been an inspiration for transportation planners looking at other wildlife inhabited highways in Colorado, including U.S. Highway 40 through the Yampa Valley.
Completed in 2016, the Colo. 9 project includes a network of features, such as two wildlife overpasses, five wildlife underpasses, 29 wildlife guards, 61 escape ramps and 10.3 miles of wildlife fencing, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Five years of follow-up study and motion-activated camera footage show the work has facilitated 112,678 safe crossings of mule deer, and at least 16 species — including turkey, moose, elk, pronghorn, river otter, bobcats, black bear and bighorn sheep — have used the wildlife crossing structures.
Captivating video of the wildlife crossings, like images of two deer leading more hesitant elk under an underpass, can be found on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife informational webpage, CPW.state.co.us/hwy9.
Other stretches of state and U.S. highways in Northwest Colorado are also dangerous for animals and motorists, but the funding for significant mitigation efforts is not easily available. One key area for abundant wildlife-vehicle collisions is on U.S. 40 from milepost 93 east of Craig to milepost 107 at Hayden, according to CDOT.
“Milepost 93 to 107 is on the statewide list as a No. 3 priority for Northwest Colorado for developing funding strategies and future projects,” said Elise Thatcher, CDOT Region 3 communications manager.
Sgt. Scott Elliott with Colorado State Patrol in Steamboat emphasized there have been “a tremendous” number of deer and elk hit by drivers on that stretch of road.
Organizations such as CDOT, CPW and the Colorado Wildlife and Transportation Alliance are working toward focusing and funding solutions that were outlined in an extensive Western Slope Wildlife Prioritization Study completed in April 2019.
The study notes nearly 4,000 vehicle crashes involving wildlife are reported to law enforcement each year in Colorado, resulting in some injuries and fatalities to humans. These collisions cost an estimated $66.4 million annually, not including the value of killed wildlife.
“Wildlife-vehicle collisions especially are a problem in Colorado’s Western Slope, which is home to several of the largest herds of migratory elk and mule deer in North America,” the report noted, explaining that 60% of strikes in the state happen west of the Continental Divide.
Thatcher said since CDOT completed the “very high-level preliminary recommendations” for areas east of Craig in spring 2019, CDOT is beginning a wildlife study to determine areas along the corridor from Craig to Steamboat Springs where mitigation solutions could be implemented.
“We anticipate this as a start for designing more projects for this corridor,” Thatcher said. “The wildlife study will determine feasibility for constructing wildlife mitigation as far as under or overpasses, fencing, radar detection systems or other mitigation that may reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions along this corridor.”
Thatcher said the segment of U.S. Highway 40 connecting Moffat and Routt counties also is a “very high priority” for the planning commission with Northwest Colorado’s Transportation Planning Region.
The CDOT spokesperson said the department’s maintenance patrol crews in 2020 removed 37 deer, 11 elk, one moose and 27 unidentified carcasses from the road on U.S. 40 in Routt County, or a total of 78 dead animals. From January through October this year, maintenance crews removed 50 deer, two elk and 55 unidentified carcasses from U.S. 40 in Routt County for a total 107 dead animals.
Officials know those figures represent an undercount of the actual number of animals killed by vehicles because CDOT only removes animals from the highway and does not respond to dead animals on the side of the road. Also, other agencies or individuals may remove carcasses off roadways. Not all drivers will report crashes, and some animals will die later after being struck in the road.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials say large wildlife-vehicle crashes can happen year-round on roadways around the Yampa Valley, especially at dawn and dusk. CDOT, CSP and CPW officials say a specifically important time of year for drivers to slow down and pay closer attention is when animals are migrating from lower to higher elevations in the spring and from higher to lower elevations in the fall.
Elliot pointed out two other areas in Routt County where officers often respond to wildlife-vehicle crashes.
“Milepost 136 just on the east side of Steamboat city limits to milepost 143 halfway up Rabbit Ears Pass, we see a lot of elk collisions,” he said. “Also, from milepost 109 east of Hayden to milepost 127 west of Steamboat II, we see a lot of elk collisions in winter specifically.”
Doug Dombey, a Steamboat Springs resident for 26 years, was one of several drivers who hit a large animal just southeast of town this fall. Also, there were at least two reported bear strikes with one sow killed and her cub orphaned, according to CPW.
Dombey and his son were traveling in early October near Steamboat Christian Center toward Rabbit Ears Pass to go antelope hunting. On the foggy morning about 6:30 a.m., an adult female moose appeared in the roadway.
“We never saw it. We all think we will see (animals) in time. My number was up apparently,” Dombey said of the collision. The cow moose was killed by the pickup, and the cow had a calf in the area, Dombey said. His 2016 Toyota Tacoma was totaled with a crushed hood, radiator pushed back into the engine and likely a cracked engine block.
“I feel like if you lived here long enough, you are just going to hit an animal. That’s just the way it is,” Dombey said.
Dombey recommends drivers exercise extreme caution to avoid these collisions.
“It happens quickly, and it’s kind of like driving on ice,” he said. “You have to pay attention all the time at dusk, dawn or at night. Be alert, that’s the key, just like you would on ice.”
Larry Desjardin, president of the nonprofit conservation group, Keep Routt Wild, said big game statistics for herd sizes, annual hunting harvests and the economic impact of hunting show elk killed by a vehicle could equate to a value of $10,000, not counting damage to vehicles and possible injuries to humans.
“Wildlife-vehicle collisions are important,” Desjardin said. “It kills a lot of wildlife, causes a lot of harm to cars, and it’s a safety issue to drivers. There is no doubt it’s making a significant impact.”
With state transportation officials seeking to reduce the number of these collisions, Desjardin said the spring 2019 Western Slope Wildlife Prioritization Study “did a pretty good job of prioritizing where wildlife crossings should be.”
“I’d really love to have more of these wildlife underpasses and overpasses and wildlife crossings put in critical locations, especially where there are mitigation routes and winter range,” Desjardin said.
He also believes more study should be devoted to lowered speed limits during certain times of the day and year.
CDOT has implemented lower nighttime speed limits in the past on some designated wildlife crossing zones across the state. Thatcher said although CDOT takes wildlife vehicle collisions into account, the road’s configuration and traffic count have much more of an influence on speed limits.
“CDOT has experimented with lowered speed limits at night specifically because of wildlife. However, our data showed that people do not actually lower their speeds when they do not perceive an immediate threat. Wildlife-vehicle collisions are taken into account when determining where to place animal crossing signs,” Thatcher said.
Elliot noted some wildlife enforcement zones, which means increased fines or penalties for speeding, still exist in some sections of Colorado Highway 13 south of Craig to Rifle and on U.S. 40 west of Hayden. CPW provides information online with tips for avoiding wildlife collisions.
CDOT Region 3 Communications Manager Elise Thatcher provided a description of key wildlife migration areas that can lead to wildlife-vehicle collisions along U.S. Highway 40.
“At this time, we believe the majority of the wildlife vehicle collisions on U.S. 40 from Craig to Steamboat Springs are with migrating animals, but there are also collisions that appear to be located within winter range. U.S. 40 within Routt County bisects winter range for elk. Areas near Steamboat Springs contain sensitive habitat (production areas), and U.S. 40 bisects winter range for deer mainly around milepost 97-102 (between Craig and Hayden) and milepost 112-117 (east of the Yampa Valley Regional Airport).
“There are known highway crossings from milepost 112.5-115 (east of the Yampa Valley Regional Airport), milepost 122-123 (east of Milner), milepost 129-130 (west of Elk River Road near Steamboat), and milepost 133-134 (near Emerald Park in Steamboat Springs). Colorado Parks and Wildlife identified areas around Steamboat Springs, east of U.S. 40, as high concentration and priority areas, likely the reason for increased wildlife vehicle conflicts.”
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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