Senate kills wildlife protection measure
A bill aimed at protecting wildlife crossing Highway 82 and other dangerous roadways got run over by a Senate committee Wednesday.
The bill would have doubled fines for speeding and other moving traffic violations in designated wildlife crossing areas, including two spots on Highway 82 in the lower Roaring Fork Valley.
It had earlier passed in the House, but was defeated in a 4-3 vote by the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
“It becomes kind of a rural issue, and rural legislators are who fight it the hardest, and I don’t understand why,” said state Rep. Mary Hodge, an Adams County Democrat who has tried three times now to get the bill passed.
The Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Wool Growers Association and Colorado Cattlemen’s Association all opposed the bill. So did state Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, who sits on the committee that killed the bill, and whose district includes the lower Roaring Fork Valley. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Some local supporters included Frosty Merriott, a member of Carbondale’s Environmental Board, and Kyle Zajac, a Basalt High School junior.
“There’s not enough in place right now to prevent people from going really, really fast at night and hitting deer,” said Zajac.
He is working with some other Basalt High students on trying to reduce wildlife deaths on Highway 82 as part of Project Citizen, a class program aimed at getting involved with government to try to bring about change.
The bill proposed creating a pilot program targeting a total of 28 miles along 12 problem highways around the state. One targeted area runs between mile markers 8-10 in the Aspen Glen area, where an annual average of 37 accidents involving wildlife occur per mile. Another area includes mile markers 20 and 22 in the mid-Roaring Fork Valley.
“We’ve really got a pretty good problem all the way to Aspen,” Merriott said. “It’s just getting worse. It’s such a waste, it seems like.”
A third targeted area is on Interstate 70 in Eagle County, at mile markers 158 and 165.
Other counties with targeted areas include Jefferson, with three areas, and Boulder, Costilla, Rio Grande, Moffat, Montrose and La Plata counties.
Carlyle Currier of the Colorado Farm Bureau, in opposing the bill, said different highways, and sections of highway, are primary wildlife crossing areas during different times of the year.
Sen. Jim Isgar said he believes wildlife are usually hit because they are startled, and not due to the speed cars are driven. He said there is more danger of hitting cows in open range than hitting wildlife, and suggested putting up more fencing along open range.
Zajac said he and other students looked at fencing as a solution on Highway 82, but found there were too many driveways that still would allow for wildlife to cross the road. Zajac believes one of the best approaches would be to install special roadside reflectors designed to pick up headlights and scare deer away from roads. Merriott agrees.
“It’s kind of an expensive system, but in places if you compare it to the amount of damage done to vehicles …” he said, leaving his conclusion unspoken.
He noted that motorists also have died in recent accidents involving wildlife in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The bill was supported by groups that included Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, Audubon Colorado, the Humane Society of the United States and the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project. Representatives of those groups maintain that speed is a major factor in cars colliding with wildlife.
Said Merriott, “We’re all to blame for taking away the habitat, and yet we don’t make concessions for that.”
Hodge had hoped the bill’s fate might be different this year than in the past because Democrats now control both the Colorado House and Senate.
“We thought it might actually have a shot,” she said.
But while Democrats hold the majority in the Senate committee that killed the bill, Isgar, a Democrat, voted with Republicans on the committee.
Said Merriott, “Wildlife does not have much of a paid lobby in our state despite tourism and hunting.”
Zajac said he’s had four close calls with wildlife since beginning to drive.
“My mom’s hit a deer, my dad’s hit a deer, and almost everyone I know has hit a deer or almost hit a deer,” he said. “There’s just nothing being done about it.”
Sen. Brandon Shaffer, the Boulder Democrat who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said he’s still not clear why senators opposed the bill.
“I think in the end of it, quite frankly, most of the senators knew how they were going to vote even before it got to committee.”
“We were disappointed because we really thought we made a good case.”
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