EVERGREEN, Colo. (KDVR) — If you’ve driven enough miles on Colorado roads, chances are you’ve had a close call with wildlife.
From deer to elk to moose and even bears, Colorado has no shortage of incredible creatures. But when those animals come across roads and highways, the impacts can be devastating.
“A split second could be the difference between driving on your merry way and having an incident where you can’t drive any longer,” Julie Leidel said.
Leidel was driving home from an art show in Breckenridge in November of 2019 when she encountered a herd of elk on state Highway 74 in Evergreen.
“I come up over the crest, and there is a wall of elk,” she said. “My only possible choice, unfortunately, was to impact. Everything slows down in that moment. You see them, and I can’t stop seeing their eyes.”
Leidel walked away from the crash, but her Nissan Xterra was totaled. Just five years earlier, she hit a deer in Utah in a similar situation and now fears another collision could end her ability to drive.
“Both cars, together, were about $14,000 in all,” she said. “I can’t hit any more and still be insured.”
Car and animal collisions in Colorado
It’s a story that is becoming more common on Colorado roads, where roughly 4,000 animal collisions are reported every single year. The issue is especially problematic in counties like Jefferson and Douglas, where urban sprawl has left wildlife with no choice but to cross major roads.
In Douglas County, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has been focusing on the Gap, the 18-mile stretch of Interstate 25 from south of Castle Rock to Monument, where hundreds of collisions happen every year.
CPW gave FOX31 a behind-the-scenes look at one of five new wildlife underpasses, where animals are funneled beneath the highway and 28 miles of 8-foot fencing is being installed.
“We want the underpass to be a safe place for wildlife to move from one part of their habitat to the next,” wildlife officer Katie Doyle said.
What kinds of animals cross Colorado’s roads?
Doyle showed FOX31 bear prints in one underpass, where cameras have captured an assortment of animals crossing through.
“A lot of elk, deer, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, raccoons, anything you can really think of,” Doyle said.
But in September, there were zero deer collisions were reported in the Gap, where CPW’s Brandon Marette said the organization is hoping to reduce collisions by 90%.
“Super exciting. I hope that’s more the rule than the exception,” Marette said.
CPW and the Colorado Department of Transportation are in the midst of a multi-year study to track progress with the $419 million project. They’re hopeful it can save drivers money and also save the lives of hundreds of animals as well.
Other wildlife protection projects in Colorado
Several wildlife mitigation projects are underway across the state. Closest to Denver is the Interstate 70 and Genesee crossing project, which is part of the Floyd Hill makeover. Plan details include a wildlife underpass along I-70 between the exits for Lookout Mountain and Genesee.
According to CDOT, the area has been identified as a hot spot for wildlife-vehicle collisions, abbreviated in official reports as WVCs, and the highest number of these occur along the interstate east of the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels.
Wildlife fencing will also be installed along both the north and south sides of I-70 between exit 254 to Genesee and exit 256 to Lookout Mountain.
Once the project is complete, motorists will cross two new bridges with wildlife passing underneath the highway. Project costs are $10 million and construction on this part of the plan should wrap in spring 2024.
Also part of the Floyd Hill project is a wildlife crossing at U.S. 40. Construction is scheduled to start on this crossing near I-70 and the U.S. 40 Empire interchange next summer
The project provides an overpass for the largest bighorn sheep herd in the state to support safe herd connectivity and reduce WVCs. Wildlife fencing will also go up along U.S. 40 to Empire and south on County Road 257. The estimated cost of the project is between $7-$10 million and should be completed by fall 2024.
According to CDOT’s web page, more than 60 wildlife mitigation structures, either above or below highways, have been built across the state.
Where do most wildlife-vehicle collisions happen?
Wildlife-related accidents can happen anywhere in Colorado. However, drivers should be especially cautious when traveling through forests and agricultural land, as well as the following high-risk areas:
- Interstate 70 (Floyd Hill, Mount Vernon Canyon and Eagle)
- U.S. 285 (Morrison)
- Highway 160 (Durango to Pagosa Springs and Durango to Mancos)
- Highway 550 (north of Durango and from Montrose to Ouray)
- Interstate 25 (Castle Rock to Larkspur)
- Highway 82 (Glenwood Springs to Aspen)
- Highway 36 (Boulder to Lyons)
- Highway 93 (Golden to Boulder)
CDOT’s latest wildlife overpass and underpass were completed in August on U.S. 160, near Pagosa Springs in the state’s southwestern corner.
“We need healthy herds, not only right now but into the future, because that’s what people love about Colorado,” Marette said.