Linking Colorado’s Landscapes

Linking Colorado’s Landscapes was designated the 2006 Exemplary Ecosystem Award by the Federal Highway Administration!

Scroll to the bottom of this page to learn more about the importance of landscape connectivity.

Phase I

In 2006, Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project (now part of Center for Native Ecosystems) completed a statewide assessment of wildlife linkages in collaboration with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), the Federal Highway Administration, The Nature Conservancy, and Colorado State University, identifying and prioritizing wildlife linkages across the state of Colorado. The goal of this work is to provide transportation planners, state and federal agencies, community leaders, engineers, and conservationists with a statewide vision for reconnecting habitats that are vital for maintaining healthy populations of native species.

Both the Federal Highway Administration and CDOT have begun promoting wildlife crossings in their transportation plans and construction projects. While much of the work to date is preliminary, CDOT has completed an analysis of the Interstate 70 (I-70) transportation corridor that identified 13 key wildlife-crossing areas. Agency support for wildlife connectivity is critical to the survival of wildlife populations at both a local and a regional scale. Through Linking Colorado’s Landscapes SREP expanded upon CDOT’s work on I-70 to analyze connectivity needs for wildlife across the entire state.

To achieve the goals of the project, SREP utilized a two-track approach that integrated local and regional expertise, as well as computer modeling. The first track – or ‘expert track’ – consisted of a series of interagency workshops held across the state to identify both functioning and degraded wildlife linkages vital to wildlife populations. The workshop participants then evaluated the characteristics and existing condition of each identified linkage.

The second track – or ‘computer modeling track’ – considered the same questions within the framework of a geographic information system (GIS). Colorado State University research scientist Dr. Dave Theobald led this effort. Dr. Theobald combined layers of spatial data about landscape characteristics (e.g., topography, rivers and streams) with wildlife habitat preferences and movement patterns to model areas of the landscape that are important for wildlife movement. The highest priority linkages identified by each of these tracks were then combined with CDOT animal-vehicle collision data and transportation planning data to select a subset of high-priority wildlife linkages for further assessment.

Download the Phase I Report here: LCL-Phase 1 Report
Download the Phase I Linkage GIS data here: LCL-Phase 1 GIS Data
For more information on creating safe highways for wildlife and people click here

Phase II

Having identified important wildlife linkages, the next phase in the project was to conduct in-depth analysis for each of these linkages and develop preliminary recommendations for improving highway permeability for wildlife. The following high priority linkage areas were selected for these analyses (click on the title to download a report; to download the Methodology Report describing how the Linkage Assessments were completed, click here)

Douglas County Front (I-25): Connectivity among these otherwise isolated habitat remnants at the fringes of the burgeoning Denver metropolitan area supports local wildlife dispersal.

Durango-San Juan Basin (US 160, US 550): Linkages traversing Highway 160 east and west of Durango and Highway 550 north of Durango provide important connections between elk winter ranges and dispersal corridors for black bears.
US 160, Durango to Pagosa Springs
US 160, Mancos to Durango
US 550, Animas Valley

Meeker to Craig (CO 13): Three primary linkage areas were identified across Highway 13, connecting the White River National Forest to northwester BLM lands.
US 13, Big Bottom
US 13, Nine-Mile Gap
US 13, Meeker Hogback

Monarch Pass and Poncha Pass (US 50, US 285): Spanning between the Sawatch Range, Cochetopa Hills, and the Sangre de Cristos, this linkage opens up access to large expanses of otherwise inaccessible habitat.

Montrose-Ridgway (US 550): This linkage provides a connection for deer, elk, mountain lions, and other animals moving through the valley between the Uncompahgre Plateau and the Cimmaron Mountains.

North Tennessee Pass (US 24): A critical linkage through the central Rockies, Tennessee Pass is part of a larger linkage crossing over Vail Pass to connect the Eagle’s Nest and Holy Cross Wilderness Areas.

Raton Pass (I-25): While there is little public land in this area, the linkage continues to support wildlife movement between the large expanses of plains habitat to the east and foothills habitat to the west.

Wolf Creek Pass (US 160): Spanning the Continental Divide, this linkage provides an important landscape connection for large carnivores between the high quality habitats of the South San Juan and Weminuche Wilderness Areas.

Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project staff visited and inventoried each of these linkage areas where they are transected by highways, compiling information on existing structures, and determining how and where animals are traversing from one side of the roadway to the other. These inventory data were combined with other layers of information, such as land ownership and management adjacent to the highway, traffic densities, and zoning. To complete the linkage assessments, SREP partnered with transportation engineers to develop guidelines and recommendations for improving safe passages for wildlife across these critical stretches of highway. These recommendations, combined with information on future highway projects will help to discern appropriate mitigation measures and funding opportunities.

Why is landscape connectivity important?

Animals are distinct in that they have the capacity for locomotion. On a daily, seasonal or even lifetime basis, animals move across the landscape to meet their needs for food, shelter and reproduction. These movements advance seed and pollen dispersal, allow unoccupied habitats to be colonized following an environmental disturbance, and promote genetic mixing among populations.

Human activities and developments are the leading threat to animal movement. Highways and development fragment the natural landscape, reduce animals’ dispersal abilities, and degrade natural ecosystem processes. However, the effects of roads can be lessened: careful design and planning, and a variety of construction options can facilitate wildlife movement, (for example, fencing, underpasses, culverts, and overpasses). As we increase the ability of animals to traverse major roadways, we also increase the safety of the people that travel on these roads and highways.

What is a Wildlife Linkage?

Wildlife linkages connect larger blocks of core habitat, providing an interim source of food and shelter as animals migrate between seasonal habitat areas or disperse from their natal territories. Preventing the isolation of wildlife populations by protecting connections between major habitat blocks and wild protected areas is crucial to maintaining healthy native wildlife populations. As the pace of development and road construction continues at its current rapid rate, the opportunities to retain and restore these linkages are becoming more limited.