Under the Bridge
By Alesha Damerville
Images from Dawn Wilson
By Amy Bulger
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS-In the idyllic Blue River Valley, frozen bodies of mule deer and other wildlife once lined Colorado 9 every winter. For passing drivers, the carcasses served as grim reminders of gruesome accidents or near-miss encounters.
Dodging wildlife on Colorado 9 south of Kremmling has long been a fact of life for Northwest Colorado residents and Front Range adventure-seekers headed from Interstate 70 to Steamboat Springs. Wildlife winter in high concentrations in these hills, but migration routes lead them across the highway. Mix in ski traffic, black ice and no shoulders, and the road was a kill-zone for humans and animals. The 11-mile stretch following the Blue River downstream from Green Mountain Reservoir to Kremmling was the site of more than 650 wildlife/vehicle collisions in the past 11 years. Sixteen people were killed along that roadway in the last 20 years, making it one of the most lethal passages in the state.
But those statistics will soon take their place in local lore, amid other stories about the old days of impossibly brutal conditions.
Since its completion last December, the wildlife crossing project along Colorado 9 has unearthed a new model for highway safety and funding. And communities across the state are taking notice of the partnership between public and private agencies that made it happen.
We've had a 90 percent reduction in animal hits here, which is huge, says Kathy Connell, state transportation commissioner for District 6. We're just thrilled with the success of it.
The project includes two wildlife overpasses, five underpasses, more than 20 miles of fence and structures to guide animals, road re-alignment and wider shoulders. It has already proven effective the number of annual wildlife/vehicle collisions dropped from near 60 in previous years to less than 10 last year.
Other regions face similar issues. In 2016, the Colorado Department of Transportation reported nearly 7,000 animals killed on roads, plus two human deaths in animal-vehicle collisions, 400 injuries and thousands of dollars in vehicle damage claims.
As population increases, human development can unwittingly dissect natural migration corridors - a concerning factor since Colorado's population is expected to increase by over 50 percent by 2050. CDOT's annual count at the Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70 reported a record-breaking 12.4 million vehicles passing through the tunnel last year. Nearly 300,000 more cars went through the tunnel in July 2017 than in July 2016.
Near Kremmling, Blue Valley Ranch owner Paul Tudor Jones II, whose property borders Colorado 9, saw the problem early on. He tried in 2000 to contact CDOT, but was told there were no plans for roadwork on Colorado 9 for another 20 years. So for the next 10 years, ranch staff tracked wildlife/vehicle collisions on their own, marking more than 650 points on a map of the highway – a nearly solid line of pinpoints when put to paper.
In 2011, the ranch donated $805,000 to CDOT to start designs for wildlife crossings. Eventually, state and local agencies gathered to discuss the idea of multiple underpasses. From these meetings, the state's first wildlife bridges were born.
With project costs first estimated around $52 million, CDOT's grant program, Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships, would fund 80 percent, if 20 percent were raised privately.
Residents had 45 days to raise more than $9.2 million. Blue Valley Ranch led the way with $4 million. Citizens for a Safe Highway 9 raised $1.2 million, Grand County Commissioners pitched in $3.1 million, and the remaining funds were donated by Summit and Grand counties, the towns of Kremmling and Silverthorneas well as private residents and businesses.
With just the first phase of the project in place, Parks and Wildlife reported more than 7,000 mule deer used the structures from December 2015 to March 2016.
By the time it was completed, the project earned six awards for collaboration, innovation and environmental excellence and is nominated for another. The 2017 International Partnering Institute Project of the Year's honorable mention award cited joint efforts of state and private organizations to gather facts that moved the project forward.
"I think this is how we need to move ahead in the future," Connell says. "We're using this model to say to people, 'You want something done? You may be a poor community, but where there's a will, there's a way if everybody tries.' It just shows you that people really want safety."
State, federal and private wildlife and transportation agencies realized the same thing. The inaugural Wildlife and Transportation Summit was held in Silverthorne in June to create a statewide plan to explore highway safety and similar projects.
New crossings won't be easy to fund. A bill to raise transportation taxes was defeated in the state legislature in April. But ideas are percolating for more crossings along Interstate 70 near Vail Pass and on Colorado 91 near Copper Mountain. In Grand County, residents want to continue making Colorado 9 safer north and east of Kremmling.
"If you've traveled that road at all north of Kremmling and Steamboat up to the pass, you know how there's no forgiveness and a lot of wildlife hits up there, Connell says. "It's just a matter of how we find the funding again. It's just a matter of when and how, and making sure we're there to take advantage of it."