Activists, officials discuss vehicle-animal collisions on Highway 82 between Glenwood Springs and Aspen |

Activists, officials discuss vehicle-animal collisions on Highway 82 between Glenwood Springs and Aspen

Katie ReddingAspen CorrespondentGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado

ASPEN, Colorado – Should the psychology aimed at reducing wildlife-vehicle interaction focus on keeping animals off the road or slowing the humans down? That’s the upshot of discussions among local wildlife activists and those charged with trying to reduce the collisions between SUVs and elk. Roughly one-third of all reported accidents along Highway 82 between Glenwood Springs and Aspen involve wildlife, according to the most recent statistics from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). The actual number could be even higher, since CDOT estimates that at least half of wildlife-vehicle collisions go unreported, noted CDOT spokeswoman Nancy Shanks. Statewide, 24,678 vehicle-wildlife collisions were reported between 1993 and 2002, resulting in 23 human deaths, according to the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project. To decrease wildlife-vehicle interactions, CDOT has been piloting several programs throughout the state in the last several years. Some, like wildlife ramps, have already found their way to the Roaring Fork Valley. Others, like a detection system that warns drivers when wildlife are on the road, could be coming. But local wildlife activists like Frosty Merriott, co-chair of the Sierra Club of the Roaring Fork Valley Wildlife Committee, are arguing for fewer studies and more action. Merriott, who convened a meeting between CDOT, DOW officials and local citizens last week to discuss roadkill, is pushing for a nighttime speed limit on Highway 82 of 55 miles per hour during migration season – and tripled fines for those who don’t obey.

In years past, CDOT built an underpass for migrating animals near the Airport Business Center, erected wildlife fences and employed variable message boards along Highway 82 to remind drivers to watch out for wildlife. It’s also piloted a wildlife ramp near Aspen Glen to help animals escape when they wander onto the highway and find themselves trapped by the very fences designed to keep them out. Nonetheless, at least for the last three years for which they have data – 2002, 2003 and 2004 – wildlife collisions have continued to make up roughly one-third of all accidents on Highway 82. This season, Shanks said CDOT will try putting different messages on the variable message boards. In years past, the signs have carried messages such as “‘Caution: Wildlife,’ ‘Wildlife Near Roadways’ or ‘Wildlife Migration.'” But wildlife advocates like Merriott have suggested that drivers become immune to these generalized messages. So this year, CDOT hopes to have signs along Highway 82 that remind people that wildlife migration season is between October and January, followed by another sign with a message such as “please slow down,” according to Shanks. The agency also hopes to set up signs that tell motorists how many animals have died on that stretch of road, either recently or in the past year. And it hopes to continually change the messages on the boards throughout the wildlife season, so drivers don’t stop paying attention. “We’re doing what we can with the budgets we have,” said Shanks. Statewide, CDOT has been piloting a variety of other programs, hoping to figure out which are successful, according to Shanks. On Highway 161, from Durango to Pagosa Springs, the agency is testing an animal detection system that uses a cable to identify changes in the earth’s electromagnetic field caused by large animals. The cable then communicates that information to a variable message board, so motorists receive real-time information about nearby animals. And while CDOT has piloted a program reducing nighttime highway speeds, so far it says the data is inconclusive. In 2005, CDOT initiated a four-year trial program reducing nighttime speeds on Highway 13, north of Craig. First-year data for the program showed wildlife deaths decreasing during the night, but roadkill data also declined during the daytime, when speeds were not reduced, said Shanks. Data for the last two years has not yet been compiled, in part because of turnover at both CDOT and the Colorado State Patrol, according to Shanks. Shanks confirmed that any of these programs could come to the Roaring Fork Valley if they prove successful enough in other locations to warrant their cost. And CDOT Program Engineer Joe Elsen said the agency will continue to apply for funding for additional fencing and wildlife travel corridors along the highway. A $1 million Highway 82 fencing project recently lost funding, though the agency was able to finish its $100,000 design. Meanwhile, Merriott and fellow activists are developing a PowerPoint presentation in the interest of convincing local governments and agencies to support lowering the nighttime speed limit during migration season on highways, like Highway 82, that cross known migration corridors. In 2005, a bill that would have doubled fines through wildlife crossing areas on 28 miles of Colorado Highway, including sections of Highway 82, was passed in the Colorado House of Representatives, but killed in a Senate committee.

Until better systems are developed to keep wildlife off the road or make humans slow down, experts warn those driving Highway 82 to scan the road ahead and use high beams whenever possible, and slow down this fall. Wildlife-vehicle collisions along Highway 82 usually peak during the months of October and November, though migration season typically lasts until January, according to Shanks. Wildlife-vehicle collisions also peak at dawn and dusk. Shanks also warned that certain stretches of the highway are more prone to vehicle-animal collisions than others. On Highway 82, CDOT believes the most animal-vehicle collisions happen between Cattle Creek and the Planted Earth garden center just north of Carbondale. Letters of support for CDOT’s efforts to obtain funding for local projects to reduce vehicle-wildlife collisions can be sent to Joe Elsen, CDOT, 202 Centennial St., Glenwood Springs, 8160.

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