HEENEY — The elk scat was plentiful as a group convened Monday morning along Colorado Highway 9 in northern Summit County near Green Mountain Reservoir. It was the third stop on a five-stop tour of popular wildlife crossings in the county.
Elissa Slezak, northwest region land-use specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Michelle Cowardin, a biologist for the agency based out of Hot Sulphur Springs, described how many elk they see in this spot when they are using binoculars to look at the local sage grouse population.
“We can’t even get in here to look at sage grouse,” Cowardin said. “… We are afraid to come in here to scoot (the elk) onto the highway.”
“I had a couple hit right here,” Slezak added. “… One calf ran all the way up to Lazy Shamrock (Ranch) on the other side (of Green Mountain Reservoir) with a broken leg, ran across the whole lake.”
The group of stakeholders — which also included an engineer from the Colorado Department of Transportation, a representative of ECO-resolutions, and local ranch owners and managers, among others — assessed a roughly 6-mile stretch of Colo. 9 from Pass Creek Ranch to just north of Heeney Road for ways to improve safety for local wildlife and motorists.
The tour was part of Summit County Safe Passages’ ongoing research to determine the most efficient and cost-effective ways to improve wildlife crossings in this stretch, one notorious for vehicle-wildlife collisions, particularly with mule deer and elk.
The group is in its exploratory stage, collecting observations and data of the crossing areas while also reaching out to local landowners and public land stakeholders.
On Monday, the group discussed how wildlife-friendly fencing might be a better solution at some crossings than large overpass-underpass structures, like the ones seen a few miles north on Colo. 9 in Grand County. At other spots, though, the group felt an overpass-underpass structure might make the most sense.
On Thursday morning, just three days after the group assessed this area, a large elk lay dead on the side of southbound Colo. 9.
This is a site rancher Jim Donlon knows well. He said Monday that it’s not uncommon for him to see as many as 100 to 200 elk descend the west hillside near Mount Powell Ranch, crossing or wallowing in the mud before heading back up a hillside.
The conversation about improving wildlife crossings in this area centered around more passive ideas, such as wildlife-friendly, high-low permeable fencing.
There also was discussion about removing cottonwood trees along CDOT’s right of way, as several group members mentioned the trees block visibility of wildlife for motorists.
“They definitely hug the trees, and that’s where they cross,” Slezak said.
The group also discussed the possibility of installing cameras to acquire data.
Just to the north of Heeney Road’s northern terminus back to Colo. 9 above Green Mountain Reservoir, ECO-resolutions’ Julia Kintsch was excited to point out a location that might have ideal terrain for an overpass.
“It’s about a mile from the Williams Peak underpass,” Kintsch said about an existing wildlife crossing farther north on the road. “So the spacing is really good.”
Slezak explained this had become a popular crossing point for wildlife in the past two years when the reservoir was low enough for animals to descend from the cliff sides.
“This is their favorite spot,” she said. “… If you built something here, they would totally use it.”
Conversation turned to the idea of a larger structure at this location complemented by a smaller structure farther south near the Cow Creek campgrounds between Colo. 9 and Green Mountain Reservoir.
“If an overpass is feasible here, I think it’s a great, great spot for it based on where the animals hang out,” Slezak said. “They are here each winter.”
Progress on Vail Pass
Ashley Nettles, Summit County Safe Passages partner and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Dillon Ranger District, said an engineering design study will commence in August for a wildlife overpasses and underpasses between Vail Pass and Copper Mountain.
Nettles said the group has secured $200,000 from partners to fund the study. She said the current idea is for two underpasses and one overpass in this stretch and said the study will inform future plans.
“It will tell us if there are any major red flags,” Nettles said. “And tell us exact locations of where crossings could go as well as exact dimensions of what structures would look like and working out any major issues that the engineers see on the ground. And it will give us a refined cost estimate for the crossing system.”
Nettles said the cost for wildlife crossings, structures and fencing varies widely from one project to another based on terrain topography, among several other factors.
The total cost of the CDOT project to improve Colo. 9 between Green Mountain and Kremmling — which included wildlife crossing overpasses, underpasses and fencing — was $50 million, she said. Only 20%, or about $10 million, of that price tag was for the wildlife crossing structures and fencing, with additional funds going to improve the highway.