The completion of a wildlife crossing on U.S. Highway 160 between Durango and Pagosa Springs is expected to reduce collisions involving vehicles and wildlife by a staggering 85%.
The new wildlife crossing, about 13 miles west of Pagosa Springs, was designed primarily to allow mule deer and elk safe passage across Highway 160, said Tony Cady, planning and environmental manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Data from CDOT shows that in 2021, 75 deer and three elk were involved in wildlife-vehicle collisions where the new wildlife crossing was constructed. Colorado Parks and Wildlife studies have also indicated the site presented one of greatest needs for wildlife-vehicle collision prevention efforts statewide, he said.
Sixty percent of reported crashes in the area are attributed to wildlife collisions, Marlon Reis, Colorado first gentleman, said at a ribbon cutting held Thursday. Statewide, nearly 4,000 big game-related crashes are reported annually.
Cady said research indicates that as many as five times that number, 20,000, go unreported each year at a cost of $80 million in property damage, medical costs and other economic impacts.
“Wildlife mitigation structures like this one are shown to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions by 85% to 90% while also maintaining habitat connectivity for wildlife to access habitats that are critical for their survival, which is equally important,” he said.
CDOT data shows that transportation Region 5, which includes Archuleta and La Plata counties, had the most wildlife-vehicle collisions last year with 2,171 reported instances of roadkill. Deer were by far the most frequent reported species with 1,797 reported instances of roadkill.
The wildlife crossing stands at 23 feet high at its centerline. It is 72 feet wide and 100 feet long, said Kevin Curry, program engineer for CDOT Region 5.
The project, which broke ground in 2021, cost a total of $12 million for the design and construction of multiple components.
The wildlife overpass and a wildlife underpass near the Highway 160 and state Highway 151 junction each cost about $2 million, said Lisa Schwantes, spokeswoman for CDOT.
Other project components included wildlife fencing and a deer guard, an extension of the westbound passing lane on Highway 160, the construction of a left-turn acceleration at the highway 160/151 junction, and resurfacing road treatment across a 2-mile stretch of highway. The road work totaled about $7 million, she said.
The underpass’ ceiling is 13 feet high and the structure is 37 feet wide and 78 feet long.
“We already have videos of animals actually using it,” Curry said. “And so we expect the same will happen here.”
The project also includes the extension of a westbound passing lane, wildlife fencing, and “jump-outs” at the edges of the road for wildlife that get caught on the highway and need an avenue of escape, he said.
Shoshana Lew, state transportation director, said although the wildlife crossing is the highlight of this particular project, the rural road improvements that were included in construction are part of Gov. Jared Polis’ 10-year transportation plan to bring rural roads across the state up to par with current safety standards.
“Being able to consolidate the wildlife features with the common-sense roadway improvements, including the turn features and the passing features, is really part of a bigger rural road program to bring all of Colorado into the safety standards that we need,” she said.
The Colorado Department of Transportation, Southern Ute Indian Tribe and other agencies gathered for the ribbon cutting atop the overpass on Thursday.
Southern Ute Indian Tribe Chairman Melvin Baker said the wildlife crossing is an important project and required a joint effort from several agencies.
“We really do value the animals and the beautiful land. This is such a beautiful area,” he said. “It’s been mentioned what animals are going to use it first (deer and elk), but I think after a while it’s just going to be a wildlife freeway for any of the animals.”
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe contributed $1.3 million for the design and construction of the wildlife crossing and provided data and staff expertise to help engineers align the crossing with deer and elk migration routes, Cady said.
“They provided invaluable assistance to the delivery of this particular project,” he said.
Aaron Johnson, wildlife biologist for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, said the wildlife crossing has been 19 years in the making.
“Nineteen years ago, the tribe put out and deployed its first set of radio collars on mule deer,” he said. “The results of those collars just kind of hinted at the importance of this particular spot, this stretch, as a migratory crossing point on Highway 160.”
He said the tribe developed its first models showing population levels in migratory corridors in 2008 that “aligned precisely” with wildlife collision hot spots along Highway 160.
A plan to design and construct the wildlife crossing was finally developed six years ago, he said.
“This project is a shining example of tools available to transportation and wildlife professionals to protect both motorists and migratory animals,” he said. “These crossings are a physical representation of keeping the migratory corridor effective and keeping a landscape connected.”
Johnson said the wildlife crossing is not only a bridge between seasonal ranges for wildlife, but a bridge maintaining cultural connections between the Southern Ute people and the important wildlife species that will use it.
CPW contributed $750,000 for the building of wildlife structures and helped CDOT with studies, Cady said.
And the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded the project a grant for $315,000 that went toward the installation of wildlife fencing. The Mule Deer Foundation helped a private donor make a $100,000 contribution to the project. And the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation awarded a grant for $75,000, he said.
This story has been updated to clarify the $12 million price tag for the wildlife crossing on U.S. Highway 160 included the wildlife overpass and underpass, an extension of the westbound passing lane on Highway 160, construction of a left-turn acceleration lane at the Highway 160 junction with state Highway 151 and resurfacing road treatment on a 2-mile stretch of highway.