Highway 9 wildlife safety project moves forward with contractor bidding
Someone has died on a stretch of Highway 9 north of Silverthorne almost every winter for the last 20 years.
The two-lane highway in this part of the Lower Blue River Valley is notorious for wildlife collisions because it separates prime winter range for animals on the east side of the road from the Blue River on the west side.
The animals cross the highway daily, especially at times when they’re harder for drivers to see.
“When I travel that corridor I try very hard not to travel at all at dawn or dusk,” said Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier. “It’s super, super dangerous.”
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, 550 animals have died after being hit by cars and trucks in the last nine winter seasons, or about 61 a year.
More than 90 percent of those deaths are mule deer, said CPW wildlife biologist Michelle Cowardin, and those records don’t include the injured animals that later die off the road.
Three years ago, a private donor started the push toward a first-of-its-kind CDOT project that will improve safety and protect wildlife along the road. In 2013, a grassroots campaign helped raise the rest of the funds needed to fast-track the project.
Now the project has reached another milestone.
CDOT will start accepting contractor bids next Thursday, and resident engineer Grant Anderson said preliminary work, like relocating utility lines, has already begun.
Construction will start in earnest as soon as weather allows in the spring.
The project involves building two wildlife overpasses and five underpasses in just over 10 miles of the road between mile markers 126 and 137.
Though only about a mile of the project lies in Summit, county government pledged to contribute $250,000 to the project over the next two years.
“It’s our workforce and our residents as well as the traveling public that we want to see safe,” Stiegelmeier said.
She added that the project especially hits home for those in the Summit community who remember the 2011 death of a high school student who swerved to avoid a large animal on Highway 9. The county wants to prevent similar tragedies.
In addition to the structures that will help keep wildlife off the highway, the project will also add 8-foot-wide paved shoulders to the highway that will better prevent collisions with cyclists and accommodate emergency responders.
Winter conditions will always cause some problems, Kremmling Mayor Thomas Clark said. But now, “when there is an accident, where do the first responders go?”
According to CPW data, documented animal-vehicle crashes account for 36 percent of the accidents between 1993 and 2012.
Because of the road’s hazardous track record, employees at Blue Valley Ranch, a private livestock and conservation operation along the highway, started counting animal deaths in 2006.
The ranch, owned by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul T. Jones II, has largely funded the current effort to make that stretch of Highway 9 safer.
In 2011, the ranch donated $805,000, as well as right-of-way land worth $140,000, to fund planning and design work for when government funding became available.
CDOT estimates the total cost of the project will be between $46 and $50 million.
Last year, an opportunity to fast-track the project arose through a state program called RAMP, or Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships, but to qualify, local governments must raise 20 percent of the project’s cost.
The ranch stepped forward once again and pledged $4 million if the remaining $4.3 million required could be raised.
A committee called Citizens for a Safe Highway 9 formed, led by Grand County resident Mike Ritschard, and successfully raised the funds by deadline, with pledges ranging from $10 to $100,000. The project was approved last fall.
“This project is getting a lot of interest and support because of the partnerships,” Cowardin said, which include state agencies, numerous individuals, businesses and local governments.
At Blue Valley Ranch, manager Sher Steuben said Thursday, “We can’t wait for it to really get underway and get finished.”
Drivers won’t notice impacts from construction likely for another six months.
In the meantime, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will add 20 more radio collars to mule deer in the area and set up cameras where the overpasses and underpasses will be built to track the animal movements.
About 15,000 mule deer live in the Middle Park area, said CPW wildlife biologist Kirk Oldham, including about 6,000 to 7,000 in the Lower Blue River Valley around the project.
Cowardin helped design the height and width of the overpasses and underpasses as well as extra wildlife protection features like fences, escape ramps and deer guards.
The underpasses, 15 feet high and 42 feet wide, had to be open enough, she said. “You don’t want a long, dark tunnel.”
The overpasses will be much larger, about 75 to 100 feet wide, and lined with berms and 8-foot high fences to keep the animals from jumping onto the road.
Cowardin said Blue Valley Ranch employees have continued to help track the number of animals killed, and the data shows the wildlife are hit all along the stretch not clustered in specific spots.
The partners will continue to monitor the animal behavior during construction and for a few years after with funding from CDOT and grants provided by the Grand Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Muley Fanatic Foundation and Woodcock Foundation.
Everyone hopes the number of animals struck will go down.
For more information about the project, visit coloradodot.info/projects/sh9wildlife.
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