Collaboration on research and funding key to success
Colorado’s First Gentleman, Marlon Reis joined tribal dignitaries and key personnel from the Colorado Department of Transportation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe to celebrate the completion of the US 160 Wildlife Crossing Project, Thursday, July 28. The project includes both an under and overpass for large game, as well as improvements to the intersection of US 160 and CO 151, which include fencing, earthen escape ramps and deer guards. Thursday’s ribbon cutting ceremony took place on the overpass stretching across US 160 to the north, with a view of Lake Capote to the south.
Southern Ute Chairman, Melvin J. Baker gave welcome remarks, following a traditional blessing by Bear Dance Chief, and former Tribal Chairman, Matthew Box. The Southern Ute Singers graced Thursday’s event, with a rendition of the Buffalo Song and an Honor Song. “These are our relatives that will be walking across here,” Box emphasized, referencing the animals, whose migration patterns will bring them over the highway for years to come.
“This project has been a vision for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe for many years,” Southern Ute Wildlife Biologist, Aran Johnson said in his remarks. “Nineteen years ago, the Tribe deployed its first set of GPS radio collars on mule deer that hinted at this location as an important migratory crossing point. Fourteen years ago, we developed our first models that showed population level migratory corridors that aligned precisely with Wildlife Vehicle Collision hotspots on this stretch of Hwy 160. Six years ago, after a huge amount of groundwork and discussions among partner agencies, a plan was developed to design and construct; and here we are today with a finished project.”
The 11-million-dollar project was made possible primarily through CDOT funding with a 1.3-million-dollar contribution by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, using funds available through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Additionally, Colorado Parks and Wildlife helped fund this multi-year project along with NGOs such as: the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Mule Deer Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
“Positive partnerships among government agencies, public organizations, nonprofit groups, and private individuals can greatly leverage wildlife mitigation projects, making the construction of these highway features more feasible,” according to a press release provided by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
The San Juan Basin is important for big game. Deer and elk spend warm summer months in the high country to the north. During cold winter months, big game move to critical range areas south of the highway. That means large numbers of deer and elk cross the highway at this location throughout the year.
An extraordinary amount of research and planning helps refine the most optimal location for wildlife mitigation structures. This project on U.S. Hwy 160 was identified because of large game collar data collected by Southern Ute Indian Tribe wildlife biologists, wildlife-vehicle collisions reported by highway maintenance crews and law enforcement, and a wildlife prioritization study performed by the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife agencies.
“This is an ideal situation, tribal land on each side of the highway, plus Forest Service to the north,” Johnson explained. “Private land can make these projects more difficult, or impossible, depending on the landowner. This location was chosen based on years of tribal migration data, obtained by way of radio collars on mule deer and elk. US 160 crash data coincides with the radio collar data, migration data. [We’re] hoping to reduce wildlife-vehicle crashes by an estimated 85%, we’re never able to fully prevent wildlife access to roadways.”
The Tribe’s Wildlife Division seeks to secure future grant funding and a similar state and federal partnership that would continue with fencing and crossing structures to the west, as far as the Piedra River.
“It will take probably three years to see true numbers on how many animals are using the crossing structures and how much the wildlife vehicle collision rate is reduced, as wildlife need time to adjust and incorporate crossings,” Johnson said. “Both mule deer and elk are highly motivated to get across Hwy 160 to access their seasonal ranges, so they should take to using the crossing structures — hoping to see 500 plus mule deer and elk pass through each season, but time will tell.”
The US 160 underpass (west of junction CO 151) was in place in October of last year, and trail cameras have already confirmed its popularity as a big game thoroughfare; the Tribe has monitored hundreds of deer, and dozens of elk, using the underpass since its completion last fall. The overpass crossing is now completed and will also be monitored by cameras for wildlife activity in order to gain a better understanding of seasonal use, while also gathering data for future projects and potential improvements.
“This project is a shining example of the tools available to transportation and wildlife professionals to protect both motorists and migratory animals,” Johnson emphasized. “These crossings are a physical representation of keeping a migratory corridor effective and keeping this landscape connected. This bridge that we are standing on…this is not only a bridge between seasonal ranges for our wildlife, but as Chairman Baker alluded to, this is a bridge maintaining cultural connections between the Southern Ute people and the important wildlife species that will be crossing it.”