Wildlife Crossings

With the Insurance institute for highway safety reporting a record 1.5 million vehicle strikes against wildlife annually, animals are forced to circumnavigate a daily procession of cars, trucks, SUV’s and more, barreling down highways that run through habitats in man-made surroundings which in no way resemble their own.

Road mortality, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, is a serious threat to 21 federally listed threatened or endangered species, and a State Farm Insurance study determined there were 2.4 million collisions between deer and vehicles between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2009 alone. The study further revealed that a collision between animal and vehicle happens somewhere in this country every 26 seconds. In addition to deer, the vehicular slaughter of elk, moose, bears, bighorn sheep, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians make up the grisly statistics, with the human toll approximated at 200 fatalities and 29,000 injuries each year according to the Federal Highway Administration. Property damage from these strikes has been listed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety at more than $1.1 billion per year.

Meeting what at one time seemed like an insurmountable challenge to the varied agendas of commercial and recreational drivers, federal and local government, conservationists, highway engineers and members of Native American nations, many states have embarked on odysseys to build a series of bridges, culverts and tunnels for animals, or aptly named "wildlife crossings." These structures, often with fences that act as guidelines to direct wildlife to the crossings, mitigate the effects of the built environment and promote safety and survival by routing animals around, over and/or under roads and highways. Predicated on early models in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, Slovenia and France, with France at the forefront of many of these structures since the 1950s, wildlife crossings now exist in various forms throughout the U.S.

Species and Statistics

Dr. Patricia Cramer, research assistant professor at Utah State University, worked with Principle Investigator Dr. John Bissonette and a team of nine ecologists and engineers on compiling a resource guide for professionals on construction of wildlife crossings: “Evaluation of the Use and Effectiveness of Wildlife Crossings.” Surveying more than 400 professionals throughout the U.S. and Canada to find there are now more than 700 terrestrial underpasses, 9 overpasses and more than 10,000 aquatic passages in 46 states and most Canadian provinces, Cramer noted that Florida is “the leader in multiple crossings for multiple species,” but that a 10-year project nearing completion in Montana—the U.S. Highway 93 project—is a “shining star study” of wildlife crossing construction and “a collaborative process (she) really value(s).”

Confluence of Creeds and Crossings

To that end, in western Montana, an infamous bumper sticker reading, “Pray for me, I drive U.S. 93” reflects a treacherous drive along a 55-mile stretch of roadway. Extending from Arizona to Canada, the two-lane U.S. 93 enters Montana from Idaho at Lost Trail Pass and continues through Missoula, Kalispell, the Flathead Indian Reservation and along the western shore of Flathead Lake before entering Canada. Described by many as “Montana’s most dangerous two-lane highway,” U.S. 93 is heavily traveled by local, commercial and recreational vehicles.

In 1989, the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) initiated a plan to expand U.S. 93 into a four-lane highway to decrease fatalities which were determined, in the course of a 20-year study, to occur primarily during passing. At that time, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes (CSKT) strongly opposed the plan, citing “concerns about their natural, cultural, recreational and scenic resources” along the large segment of highway that crossed the Flathead Indian Reservation. According to reports, the tribes “believed the road expansion would harm their land and its diverse animal population—from grizzly bears and elk to painted turtles and bullhead trout.” Protecting and safeguarding animals is intrinsic to Indian culture, observers note, with the continuum of wildlife corridors an integral part of that.

“Early on, it wasn’t pretty,” said Dale Becker, program manager for the CSKT wildlife management project, which includes the crossings. CSKT studied wildlife crossings in Europe and at Canada’s Banff National Park, the latter of which eventually became a template for them, but initially, Becker says, “…everything we proposed met with real resistance. It was a tough run. We were dealing with great civil engineers, but even MDT and the Federal Highway Administration had not embraced this. We needed a set strategy and a set approach for the three governments.”

With CSKT’s escalating concerns, according to members, “that highway expansion wouldn’t just add lanes, it would also encourage higher speeds which would increase the number of animals killed by speeding traffic,” the plan stalled for nearly a decade until Jones & Jones ­—a Seattle-based architectural, landscape architectural, and planning firm—was brought in to mitigate what had become a contentious debate. The environmental award-winning firm, known globally for its practiced assimilation of architecture, the environment and wildlife spaces (“To save wildlife, we must save wild places” is among its slogans), determined that only the northern quarter of the highway required four lanes, and went on to design upwards of 40 strategic wildlife crossings including small-and large-box culverts, open span bridges and major over-crossings. The structures were created to channel bear, elk, moose, mountain lions, amphibians and waterfowl under and over the highway, according to Jones & Jones’ whitepaper report. With completion slated for this summer, an 8-foot stock fence running along the road between crossings diverts animals from the road and into the crossings. Pat Basting, MDT Missoula district biologist who has been involved with the U.S. Highway 93 project since shortly after its inception, affirmed that the wildlife crossings have been getting “pretty substantial use by a multitude of species.” A formal monitoring process that will continue for five years will be in place this summer, he added, ascribing “the bulk of the credit to the tribes in maintaining connectivity to wildlife.”

Panthers and Passages

In Florida, where an estimated 120 panthers remain in the wild, conservationists have been particularly concerned with State Road 29 and Interstate 75, also called Alligator Alley, among others. Listed as an endangered species since 1967, and though numbers have rebounded considerably in the last two decades (up from 20-30 in 1987), the Florida panther continues to meet an untimely fate due to vehicle strikes with the loss of 10 individuals in 2008 and 16 (possibly 17) in 2009.

“There are not enough resources to protect every linear mile of highway in the state,” said Darrell Land, panther team leader of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. But in areas that have benefitted from the construction of wildlife crossings, and in particular a 40-mile stretch of I-75 which boasts 36 structures, only two panthers have been lost to collisions in 20 years, he says, noting that 40 miles of fencing also help facilitate passage through the crossings, with an additional 5 miles on SR 29 which traverses I-75. Four crossings also currently exist on Highway 1, south of Miami and in the vicinity of Everglades National Park. Land explained that in the state whenever a new road is planned, or a proposal for a road upgrade is submitted, wildlife crossings are considered and integrated where possible.

Wyoming Weighs In

In Lander, Wyoming, an arduous research project between Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) and the state’s Game and Fish Department, which involved a series of deer migration studies and analysis of vehicle-wildlife collisions over an 8-year period, resulted in the $3.8 million construction of seven 12-foot high wildlife underpasses and more than 30 miles of fencing along U.S. Highway 30. Considered one of the state’s busiest highways, with the label “world renowned as a bad place for motorist or mule deer,” two-lane Highway 30 bisects Nugget Canyon, the state’s largest big game winter range, and was known as a “slaughter zone” for 300-500 mule deer out of 7,000-10,000 who crossed the highway annually. Since its completion in 2008, the underpasses have reduced fatalities by up to 97 percent according to Mark Zornes, wildlife management coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Green River region.

“It all started in the 1980s with 11 miles of just deer fences,” Zornes said, “and we still had significant mortalities. We tried everything on the planet to keep deer off the highway and warn motorists: flashing signs that came on when animals tried to enter and had right of way. Nothing worked.” With construction of the Wyoming underpasses, also referred to as boxes, not only did mule deer fatalities decrease to 11 last year, but elk, moose, bobcats, badgers, cottontails and other animals have been known to use them successfully.

Acknowledging mule deer’s high migratory drive (Zornes quipped that one can herd mule deer anywhere they want to go), the state recognized the importance of providing enough underpasses in proportion to miles of fencing. “They will throw themselves into the fence to get to (winter or summer) ranges,” Zornes explained, adding that if there are enough boxes, and once they figure out where the boxes are, it becomes a part of their migratory route. And with another thriving wildlife crossing in the Baggs area (Carbon County) utilized by 3,000 mule deer in its first year, WYDOT is seeking $25.5 million in funding, including stimulus money, to build 25 miles of big game fencing, 10 underpasses and one overpass for pronghorn sheep along U.S. Highway 189 south of Kemmerer.

With Montana’s U.S. Highway 93 project garnering the moniker “The Road as Respectful Visitor,” and 46 states transcending the conventional approach to road building with the incorporation of wildlife crossings, proponents say construction no longer has to be construed as destructive, and the right of way (whose ever it is) can clearly yield to the right way.