Aspen lawmakers consider lower nighttime speed limits to reduce roadkill | SkyHiNews.com

Aspen lawmakers consider lower nighttime speed limits to reduce roadkill

Scott Condon
Aspen Correspondent
Grand County, CO Colorado

ASPEN, Colorado – A bill aimed at reducing the number of deer, elk and other wildlife getting clobbered by cars on routes like Highway 82 will be introduced by the Aspen area’s two state legislators this year.

State Sen. Gail Schwartz and State Rep. Kathleen Curry said they will work on a bill designating wildlife crossing zones in state roadways. The session starts Wednesday. While wording hasn’t been crafted yet, the intent is to reduce nighttime speed limits in the wildlife zones and double the fines for violators, Curry said.

“It’s just kind of a common-sense thing,” she said. “The number of collisions continues to increase each year.”

There are more vehicles on Colorado’s roads, more development affecting migration patterns and, in some areas, increasing numbers of big game, according to Curry. When those ingredients are mixed with high speeds it results in deadly outcomes, said Frosty Merriott, a Carbondale town trustee who has worked for years to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions.

He is lobbying to get the state to reduce the nighttime speed limits in the wildlife crossing zones from 75 or 65 mph to 55 mph.

“There is so much more time to react,” Merriott said, “and you’re not overdriving your headlights.”

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Roadkill is common along Highway 82 and has been for years. State wildlife officials have said an underpass included in the reconstruction of Highway 82 in Snowmass Canyon has eased collisions there. Three problem areas exist farther downvalley: about 1 mile east of the intersection of Highways 82 and 133; along Aspen Glen; and at Cattle Creek and Highway 82.

CDOT installed special fencing on the north and south sides of Highway 82 along a 2-mile stretch by Aspen Glen to reduce wildlife crossings. Fencing will go up next near the Highway 82 and 133 intersection.

“They’re trying to keep the critters off the road,” Merriott said. “They’ve got a whole lot of fencing up, and it works well. But the animals still need to migrate.”

He fears that later this winter, elk herds on the north side of the highway will need to access the Roaring Fork River. And the elk herd lounging in the Aspen Glen area on the south side of the road will need to move north for fresh forage. When they encounter the new wildlife fencing, they will move to its flanks to get around, he said.

Merriott sees the wildlife fencing and even the wildlife crossing zones, with slower speed limits, as interim steps. The ultimate solution is overpasses or underpasses that allow the animals to migrate safely and remove the risk of car damage and injury for humans.

Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems says on its website there is $8 billion in property damage annually in the U.S. and “hundreds” of lives lost from car-wildlife collisions. The group said the average cost of vehicle damage is $6,617 for collisions with deer and $17,485 for collisions with elk, citing a report by the Western Transportation Institute.

The risk of a collision apparently isn’t enough to slow some drivers down, and sometimes slower speeds wouldn’t help anyway. But Merriott said data show 80 percent of accidents happen at night. Speed often contributes. He believes the threat of a double fine will slow drivers down.

Curry said the bill’s intent will be to allow the Colorado Department of Transportation and Colorado Division of Wildlife to determine where the wildlife crossings zones should be designated on roads throughout the state. They will use historic data on big-game migration routes and on vehicle-wildlife collisions, which are already mapped.

The wildlife crossing zones will be marked with special signs designed to get the attention of drivers. They will be similar to the orange signs in construction zones, Curry said. Drivers will be alerted that fines are double. Flashing signs could also be used.

Merriott said the current road signs with a deer signifying a wildlife crossing area have lost their effectiveness with drivers.

A similar bill proposing slower nighttime speeds, higher fines and extra signs in wildlife crossing zones was defeated in 2005. It passed the House but was defeated 3-2 in the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Merriott hopes this bill will fare better because of greater awareness of the issue.

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