No easy solutions for keeping animals off Garfield County roads
Damaged fence along I-70 illustrates challenges of mitigating traffic impacts on wildlife
Recent winter weather is driving a surge of ungulates on Garfield County’s roadways, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesperson said.
“This year we have weather conditions that are closer to normal than the drought conditions we’ve experienced for so long,” said Matt Yamashita, a CPW area wildlife manager based in Glenwood Springs. “The early snow storms in December created a scenario where a lot of our elk and deer herds are concentrated in the lower levels.”
Wildlife fencing along Interstate 70 and other state highways often deters wildlife from entering the roadway, but vehicles sliding off the highway during winter conditions can damage the fencing, providing wildlife an entry point.
“Fencing works both ways,” Yamashita said. “Once they get through and onto the highway, they can have a hard time finding a way out.”
Food accessibility can also entice wildlife into major traffic corridors. Although the Colorado Department of Transportation installs dirt ramps on the road-side of the wildlife fence, animals sometimes prefer to feed near the road where plows have uncovered roadside vegetation, as was recently the case near Mamm Creek between I-70 mile markers 94 and 95.
A vehicle left the roadway sometime near Christmas and struck fencing near Mamm Creek, CDOT maintenance employee Kirk Mardesen said. Several elk entered I-70 through the gap before CDOT employees could conduct repairs, leading to several collisions and resulting in the deaths of multiple animals. Additionally, Mardesen explained some elk jumped over a cattle guard in the area, further complicating the traffic situation.
“A herd has been hanging out in that area, because there’s a nice hay field near there for them to feed,” he said. “We’re so short of people, with the weather and clearing the roads, it’s hard to take care of everything at once.”
The hole is patched now, but elk can still cross the cattle guard, Mardesen said.
Enough elk entered the highway at one point in the early weeks of January, Yamashita said CPW worked with Colorado State Patrol to move the animals out of the roadway.
“Wildlife on the road is an everyday thing, so it’s not very often multiple agencies work together to remove them,” he said. “Wild animals don’t always go where you want them to, so stopping traffic to try to herd them is a bit of a gamble, but we were successful that day.”
CPW’s Glenwood Springs office fields hundreds of calls a year about animals in the road, and in most cases, Yamashita said the agency lets nature take its course.
Even if the agency had the staffing necessary to deal with each and every call, options are limited for handling animals near the roadways. Tranquilizers always carry a risk of death for the animal, but that risk is increased when animals are stressed, which is often the case when traffic is involved, Yamashita explained.
Herding the animals puts the animal, game warden and drivers at risk because of the potential for erratic behavior. It’s also difficult to ensure the animal won’t return to the roadway shortly after.
Instead, CPW works with CDOT and other governmental departments when building roads to create natural crossing areas for wildlife, such as the elevated sections of I-70 in Glenwood Canyon, the Aspen Glen underpass on Colorado Highway 82 and the elevated section of Highway 82 in Snowmass Canyon.
“When possible, we suggest these crossing areas coincide with natural migratory paths,” Yamashita said.
A drainage area near Mamm Creek is intended to serve a similar function, CDOT Region 3 Biologist Cinnamon Levi-Flinn said.
“There are several culverts in place along I-70 that we try to use fencing to guide (wildlife) to those crossing locations,” Levi-Flinn explained.
Although not on I-70, CDOT is working on a few projects near Rifle to ease wildlife-traffic conflicts, she added.
In 2019, CDOT completed a West Slope wildlife prioritization study, which helps the department design roads with migratory paths in mind, said David Cesark, CDOT’s Region 3 planning and environmental manager.
“Whenever we do a road project, we try to include wildlife mitigation as much as possible,” Cesark said. “But we were really lacking good science about the big game migration corridors up until the study was completed.”
Unfortunately, all available tools — fencing, wildlife crossing areas, signage and awareness campaigns — can’t completely eliminate the risks wildlife and motorists pose to one another. From a wildlife management standpoint, Yamashita said vehicle-related deaths do not significantly impact Garfield County’s ungulate populations.
“It’s not occurring at a rate that is a population event,” he said. “We’re not seeing enough animals die to make or break a herd.”
From 2019-2021, CDOT reported about 482 animal carcasses were reported on state highways in Garfield County, which includes smaller animals such as skunks and raccoons.
Zane Znamenacek, CDOT’s Region 3 traffic and safety program manager, said the department hosts awareness campaigns during peak migratory times of the year, but drivers should always be on the lookout.
“At the end of the day, wildlife on the roadway is just a part of life in Colorado,” Znamenacek said. “We need to be aware of that as drivers as much as possible.”
Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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