The Colorado Department of Transportation is ready to spend roughly $5.2 million in state funds to address the “No. 1 safety issue” on a stretch of U.S. 550 between Montrose and Ouray.

CDOT and its partners are moving forward with a wildlife underpass at mile marker 114.4 on U.S. 550, near the Billy Creek State Wildlife Area.

The project — a phase of the overall infrastructure needed to protect deer, elk and motorists alike — includes 29,400 linear feet of fencing to keep big game off the road and funnel animals toward the underpass. The new underpass will complement an existing crossing structure at mile marker 116.

“The Billy Creek Wildlife Mitigation Project has been identified as a statewide priority by both the local community, including the Gunnison Valley Transportation Planning Region, and within the Western Slope Wildlife Prioritization Study,” said Mark Lawler, CDOT biologist, on Thursday.

Lawler gathered Tuesday with Colorado Parks and Wildlife representatives, plus potential grant funders, at the proposed underpass site.

“The planned mitigation will significantly reduce the number of animal-vehicle collisions along the U.S. 550 corridor.”

Per CDOT, wildlife-related collisions near Billy Creek accounted for half the crashes over the last decade that were reported to law enforcement along the highway, which cuts through mule deer and elk migration routes and range.

Mule deer populations have declined in CPW’s Deer Analysis Units D-19 and D-40 (Uncompahgre). Elk populations also are at risk in the region.

The deer population objective for D-40 is 13,500; the estimated population is 6,294, said Alyssa Kircher, CPW terrestrial biologist. In D-19, the population objective is 36,000, while the estimated population is only 17,119.

“Based on our existing management plans, we are about 50% below objective for both DAUs,” Kircher said. The objectives are based mostly on historic numbers and could be revised as the new herd management plan process takes place within the next few years, she said.

Elk population fitness is estimated by the ratio of cows to calves that survive winter. The cow/calf ratio in the Billy Creek area is 38.8 calves to 100 cows, Kircher said.

Although the busy road is not good news for wildlife, the highway is a vital thoroughfare for residents and the regional economy — and the population continues to grow, along with average daily trips in the thousands.

In the Billy Creek project, CDOT and CPW are trying to strike a balance between these competing needs.

Safety priority

“Billy Creek is a great example of CDOT and the state’s commitment to providing safe transportation facilities, while also recognizing the ecological impact our system has on the natural environment,” Lawler said.

“Our roads frequently bisect important summer and winter rangers and disrupt migration corridors. The projects that add mitigation features play a large role in addressing the significant safety issues associated with wildlife and vehicle conflicts, while making out roads more permeable to wildlife accessing critical components of their habitats.”

A longer stretch of U.S. 550, which encompasses the project area, sits near the top of CDOT regional priorities for improvements.

The 2019 Western Slope Wildlife Prioritization Study put mile markers 114.5 — 116 in the top 5% priority segments for wildlife mitigation efforts in CDOT Region 5.

Between mile markers 112.7 and 115.5, 55 mule deer carcasses were found and removed in 2005-2020. The biggest body count came during the months when elk and mule deer migrate between summer and winter ranges, according to CDOT information.

CDOT installed sign boards to warn drivers and also erected wildlife fencing along the right of way north and south of Billy Creek. It further added a large game underpass about 1.5 miles north of Billy Creek in 2012.

However, the associated fencing terminates immediately south of Billy Creek, at the bridge, and wildlife continue to cross there. A larger crossing structure, more fencing and “escape ramps” for wildlife are needed.

The full-scale recommendations call for these, plus other safety measures between mile markers 112.7 and 115.5, such as widening existing shoulders and flattening out roadside banks.

But CDOT doesn’t have the money for everything: The full costs of all the recommendations is $30 million.

Available funding is $1.5 million from the CDOT regional priority pool and $3.7 million provided by the passage of Senate Bill 267, for a total of $5.2 million. The legislation allocated millions of funding to improve roads. For Fiscal Years 20-22, 75% of the money is dedicated to mobility and safety projects and the remainder is dedicated to rural pavement projects.

The $5.2 million is almost enough for the underpass as a standalone project, which came in at about $6 million.

“CDOT has been unable to identify funding for the total project,” Tony Cady, the agency’s Planning and Environmental Program manager, said. “Our regional budget for construction projects is typically about $40 million to $60 million. Our region covers 15 counties with 20-25 projects each year.”

A $30 million project at Billy Creek would eat into half or more of the total available funding for Region 5.

Cady said the full project remains a high priority. The standalone underpass and associated fencing are the first of phases CDOT will complete as funding becomes available.

“This will address the wildlife movement needs and the No. 1 safety issue on this section of U.S. 550,” Cady said.

CDOT and CPW are working to make up the roughly $800,000 shortfall between the available $5.2 million and the $6 million price tag. Efforts include reaching out to the Pew Charitable Trust, which was among site visitors Tuesday, and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, as well as seeking other grants and donations.

The Billy Creek underpass project area extends almost three miles. The 8-foot-tall fencing that will be installed as part of it will ensure that wildlife doesn’t simply move down the road to cross it elsewhere.

“This action would eliminate four existing fence ends, preventing wildlife passage at these previously vulnerable locations,” Lawler said.

“Given the size and desirable location of the existing crossing structures and proposed underpass, wildlife are more likely to use underpasses and bridges than pass through the development barriers presented by the community of Colona, the remaining fence end.”

Construction is expected to begin in 2023 and to take about three months.

Cady says it will likely require single-lane, alternating traffic closures and a temporary traffic signal. Motorists on Ouray County Road 2 might also see delays because of a deer guard installation at the access point, which may require a temporary dirt road detour.

At the underpass, CDOT will construct an additional 4 feet of paved shoulders and new guardrail, to accommodate future widening of U.S. 550 to tie into the road surface above the underpass structure.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.