Paving the way for similar projects across Colorado
By: Paige Singer, Rocky Mountain Wild’s Conservation Biologist/GIS Specialist
State Highway 9 was always an important roadway for my family – we lived in rural Craig – as we sought recreation opportunities in central Colorado, the big cities on the Front Range, and beyond. I have since moved away from Craig, but State Highway 9 – all 140 miles of it – remains a major transportation route for people traveling to and from Kremmling, Silverthorne, Breckenridge and Fairplay, all the way to its terminus near Canyon City and the Royal Gorge.
Yet this vital roadway is also the scene of numerous casualties. For example, from 1997 through 2016, there were more than 600 reported vehicular crashes just along an 11-mile stretch between the Colorado River south of Kremmling and the Grand-Summit county line, which resulted in 200 people injured and 16 people killed.
State Highway 9 runs through the lower reaches of the Blue River Valley, a vast sagebrush landscape that provides winter range and year-round habitat for wildlife like mule deer, elk, moose, bears and mountain lions. Animals that spend the summer up in Colorado’s high country move down to the lower elevations on the valley floor to escape the deep snow and access the food and water they need to survive the winter. Because State Highway 9 is located low in the valley, wildlife, in particular mule deer, concentrate near the highway, sometimes crossing the roadway multiple times a day. With each crossing, they risk the possibility of colliding with oncoming traffic. Prior to 2016, more than 60 animals were killed in wildlife vehicle collisions (WVCs) on this stretch of road each winter.
In order to address these safety issues, the State Highway 9 Wildlife and Safety Improvement Project (SH9 Project) was completed in late 2016 on the 11-mile stretch of State Highway 9 just south of Kremmling. This project included the construction of Colorado’s first wildlife overpasses (two in count) and five underpasses, allowing wildlife to travel safely over or under the highway. In addition to these large crossing structures, which are connected with 8-foot high wildlife exclusion fencing, small and medium species can use several smaller structures to cross under the roadway without being hit. Escape ramps, placed intermittently along the wildlife fence, provide an escape route for animals inadvertently trapped on the highway side of the fence.
Prior to construction of these wildlife crossing structures, an average of 56.4 vehicle collisions with mule deer and elk occurred annually on this stretch of highway. WVCs were the most common type of accident reported to law enforcement, accounting for 60% of all accidents. As shown in the graph, since the construction of this mitigation project (completed in two phases as depicted by the arrows), there has been nearly a 90% reduction in WVCs with mule deer and elk in the project area. Researchers have documented mule deer successfully using the wildlife crossing structures to move safely over or under the roadway more than 45,000 times. Some of these movements are by the same individuals but every time an animal used one of the crossing structures, the possibility of a collision with a vehicle was avoided! Mule deer aren’t the only wildlife to use the crossings – elk, white-tailed deer, moose, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, red foxes, bobcats, badgers, hares, skunks, raccoons and even river otters have been documented safely crossing over or under the roadway by way of the crossing structures.
This SH9 project was the result of an unprecedented collaboration between Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Department of Transportation, Grand County, the privately-owned Blue Valley Ranch and the Citizens for Safe Highway 9 committee as well as a number of other partners. Currently a team of researchers, led by Julia Kintsch from ECO-resolutions and Dr. Patricia Cramer, is studying the wildlife crossing structures and other components of the mitigation project to assess their effectiveness in allowing safe wildlife passage over or under State Highway 9 and reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions. The research study is funded by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Colorado Department of Transportation with assistance from the Woodcock Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Muley Fanatic Foundation. If you haven’t already, take a drive to check out Colorado’s very first wildlife overpasses and see the project that is paving the way for similar projects around the state.
Reprinted with permission from Friends of Eagles Nest Wilderness.