Summit County Safe Passages Launches Campaign to Build Wildlife Passages on East Vail Pass

Summit County Safe Passages is campaigning for the construction of three wildlife crossings a few miles west of Copper Mountain Resort.
Summit County Safe Passages/Courtesy Image

Summit County Safe Passages has officially launched a campaign for new wildlife crossings on Interstate 70 on East Vail Pass in an effort to reduce wildlife-to-driver crashes traveling through Colorado.

Just west of Copper Mountain, the large-scale project will include the construction of three level crossings — one overpass and two underpasses — under the westbound lanes. There are currently five long-span bridges serving the eastbound lanes on East Vail Pass.

The overpass planned for construction, which is designed to be hourglass-shaped to guide large mammals, has a preliminary cost of $8.5 million. The arch underpass and bridge underpass to be constructed would cost $3.5 million and $3 million, respectively.

Summit County Safe Passages has received public and private contributions for the projects, including local ski areas. In total, the entire project is now estimated at $26 million, including increased costs due to supply chain issues and inflation.

“The big take-home message is that East Vail Pass wildlife crossings offer a truly exceptional opportunity to become the national leader in wildlife crossings,” said Stefan Ekernas. “We know that across the state, wildlife crossings are a big problem.”

A portion of Interstate 70 over East Vail Pass is seen August 29, 2022. The feasibility study has been completed for the construction of three more wildlife crossings on the westbound lanes. The cost is estimated at a total of $26 million.
Eliza Noe / Daily Summit News

Each year, animal-car crashes are estimated to cost approximately $80 million a year in property damage, injury, and death, and more than 3,000 such crashes are documented each year in Colorado. Another $24 million is lost in recreation opportunities.

In addition to construction, the proposed wildlife fence is another aspect of the project, which still costs a few million dollars.

A variety of large animals live near the area and have been captured by trail cameras, including moose, mountain lion, elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep. Currently, there are already some mitigation measures in place to limit risk, including several underpass structures for animal crossings, but only one exists on the westbound lanes.

Just north of Silverthorne on Highway 9, a wildlife overpass has been installed towards Kremmling which has so far reduced collisions.

Julia Kintsch, chair of the Summit County Safe Passages board of directors, said the project has been in the works for 20 years and has become a top priority when it comes to reducing collisions on I-70. . She added that recent research has shown that many animals need around 60 seconds to completely cross safely. Often, however, 10-second intervals can be rare, even in times of low or no traffic. Roads with a volume of more than 10,000 cars per day are considered nearly impassable, she said. At this level, the animals don’t even try to cross the road. This can impact migration and create other issues. The purpose of these crossings would be to reconnect populations that might not have been able to interact.

“What’s so special about this particular place?” says Kinsch. “It is home to the only known breeding population of the federally protected Canada lynx, and it is also home to a variety of species that use and depend on this habitat.

Summit County Safe Passages has completed the process feasibility study. Two viaduct options were considered in the study, a traditional inclined wall and an hourglass. Overpasses are traditionally more expensive than underpasses, but the study says this would provide a greater variety of animals to use. It will also be the first hourglass-shaped wildlife crossing in the United States.

At its narrowest, the bridge will be 85 feet wide. As the project moves into the next phase of project design and National Environmental Policy Act clearance, each location will be analyzed for potential wetland impacts. Preliminary investigation identified several wetlands in the project area, including what is likely a bog. Fens can take thousands of years to form and are a high priority for conservation and restoration.

“With these new crossings we are proposing on East Vail Pass, combined with the existing infrastructure and new crossings being built on the west side of the pass, we have this incredible opportunity to reconnect this landscape,” Kintsch said.


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