Some winters bring carnage that impact sage grouse
[ by Mark Reaman ]
A sad but common sight along the local highways, especially during the winter months, is the dead animals like elk and deer that have been struck by vehicles.
Sometimes hundreds of carcasses can litter the local roadways over the course of a season, depending on the year. Gunnison County staff and commissioners discussed how best to dispose of the carcasses at the December 15 county commissioner’s meeting.
In conjunction with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), the carcasses will be taken to be buried at the Gunnison County Landfill.
Gunnison County Public Works director Marlene Crosby told the commissioners that roadkill is more of a problem on Highway 50 around Gunnison than on Highway 135. For many years, most of the carcasses were discarded in the same area or taken to a location where steep banks on the side of the road allowed them to be moved off the road out of sight of vehicles driving by.
“About seven years ago during a particularly bad year for roadkill the carcasses went to the landfill to be buried,” Crosby explained. “The last two or three years they have been brought near the landfill in a separate area. The concern has been raised about the impact of the carcasses on a nearby ranch and its operations. The area where they are placed, basically a hillside on the side of the road near the landfill, attracts other animals that feed on the carcasses. It can be an issue with the sage grouse as well, as those animals then look for and find the sage grouse eggs. So we called Brandon Diamond at CPW about appropriate disposal.”
Diamond agreed that roadkill could have impacts on ranching and sage grouse. “As the traffic volumes have grown, the roadkill issues have grown as well,” he said. “We have heard the complaints from the ranch. It is maybe one or two winters out of five with significant roadkill issues but it is common. And that impacts sage grouse when scavengers are attracted to the burial area and eat nearby eggs.”
The county, CPW and CDOT do not count every dead animal struck by a vehicle over the winter but the number varies depending on the winter. Diamond said some years there are dozens of roadkills and some years there are hundreds. “The winter 2016/17 we had significant roadkill issues,” he recalled. “It is highly variable and pretty much depends on snow. If there is more snow covering food sources the animals come down and concentrate on the highway corridors. There is more food availability in that area. The increased traffic volumes we are seeing recently also compound the issue.”
Diamond said while not an issue yet, the threat of spreading chronic wasting disease between animals is a concern in the future as well. “CDOT does a great job of trying to help us out and their idea was to consolidate the carcasses. In short we are hoping to collaborate with the county and have a more streamlined process to dispose of carcasses at the landfill in a way that alleviates the concerns that have been brought up. They would have to be buried and that comes at a cost. We are here to plant the seed on how to move forward to deal with the carnage that happens in bad winters.”
Crosby said she assumed carcasses would be delivered daily to the landfill and buried. She said certain landfill costs, including covering the animals, would happen no matter what and not see a significant increase. She recommended to the commissioners that CDOT pick up the hard costs involved in a new and more aggressive burial plan.
“Most of the roadkill happens in the winter when the landfill is not as busy,” Crosby said. “So we are asking the board of commissioners to charge a reasonable amount to get the carcasses to the landfill and then properly disposed of.”
“That sounds reasonable,” agreed commissioner Roland Mason.
“It seems a good option for both health and safety concerns,” said commissioner Liz Smith.
“It is an important issue,” agreed commissioner Jonathan Houck. “From the perspective of safety and the sage grouse, anything we can do to support the health of the sage grouse population is important. With the state picking up the hard costs and the plan protecting the sage grouse, I think this is something we can move forward with.”
Diamond said there were several reasons to move down this path. “There are a lot of issues so it would be good to have an expedited way to get rid of carcasses,” he said. “And stay vigilant this time of year. This is the time of year drivers should have their head on a swivel. Be very aware of animals as you are driving.”
Crosby said she would compile details for the commissioners to approve at an upcoming meeting in early January.