Millions of miles, lives and dollars
In our country, millions of miles of road networks divide large, contiguous areas of habitat into smaller pieces and create both physical and noise barriers for animals. Vehicle-wildlife collisions claim the lives of more than a million animals daily on American highways, and cause billions of dollars in damage and human injuries and deaths each year. It’s not just white-tailed deer that are getting hit by cars. Bees, butterflies, salamanders, snakes, turtles, birds, poppies, raccoons and even black bears and elk are all at risk. Projects across the US are working to improve the ability of wildlife species to navigate this patchwork landscape through proactive transportation planning and habitat connectivity—projects such as Safe Route: 1-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project.
A coyote near the side of a road. Photo courtesy of the Wildlands Network and the National Parks Conservation Association.
making way for wildlife
Animals travel for many reasons – to eat, to gather resources, and to meet others. Animals also move to fulfill life functions such as finding new territory, a mate, cover, or they may travel in search of food and water or other habitat types. The amount of movement required varies by species, and the needs of those resources may change daily, seasonally, or over the course of years. Factors that affect whether an animal attempts to cross a road—and if so, when and where—the width of the road, the amount of traffic, the level of noise produced by the vehicles, the type and density of vegetation along the road, and any physical barriers used to separate the lanes.
Habitat and connectivity are the keys to helping animals navigate a fragmented landscape. Maintaining natural areas for wildlife through conservation easing or other land acquisition programs is a great first step. Large, contiguous areas of land supporting unique habitat types, high biodiversity of flora and fauna, or threatened or endangered species should be preferred, followed by land with high potential for habitat restoration or improvement .
Connecting these natural areas or unique habitats through systems of corridors is an effective way to reconnect land for wildlife to travel unhindered by roads and vehicles, thereby reducing the risk of mortality. A corridor system is essentially a network of greenways to ensure safe, pedestrian wildlife movement from one place to another. When roads are involved, crossing structures can help animals move safely from one side to the other.
Black bear entering the culvert down the road. Photo courtesy of Wildland Network and the National Park Conservation Association.
Safe Route: I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project
Over the past few years, a diverse group of biologists, wildlife managers, transportation planners, and wildlife advocates have set out to develop viable solutions to the rising costs of wildlife mortality, human injury, and damage from wildlife-vehicle collisions in western North Carolina. came together. . This group developed the safe route: the I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project.
To identify where, when and how wildlife is crossing roads, coalition partners conducted camera trap surveys, GPS tracking and individual observations to collect animal movement data. These science-based approaches allow researchers to take a closer look at mortality “hot spots” and prioritize which crossing structures may be most beneficial. Once these crossing-structure target areas are identified, the Coalition can begin working toward including wildlife-friendly pathway structures to increase the ability of wildlife to move safely up or down roads .
Wildlife crossing structures come in a variety of shapes and sizes and must be tailored to the species to ensure successful use. Elk, black bear and white-tailed deer are the dominant species of the alliance; However, improvements in habitat and connectivity will also benefit small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and aquatic species.
Crossing structures may include overpasses and underpasses, for example naturally occurring land bridges, man-made bridges with dry passages or ‘benching’ or aquifers, free-flowing water, and culverts of various types. The alliance is also working with transportation departments in NC and TN to make roadways more wildlife-friendly while repairing infrastructure such as on-and-off ramps and bridges.
Proactive planning for implementing crossing structures must consider whether the structures will support terrestrial or aquatic species, or both. It is best to use natural materials when possible, as opposed to pavement or concrete, which may seem unnatural to animals, possibly preventing individuals from using crossing structures. Proper fencing and significant protection increase wildlife crossing effectiveness when adjacent to natural land. While costly, these methods have proven cost-effective in the long term.
Elk is traveling down a highway. Photo courtesy of Wildland Network and the National Park Conservation Association.
Strong partnerships between state and federal wildlife and transportation agencies, conservation groups, policy makers and the public can ensure that wildlife species thrive through coexistence. The Coalition will continue to assist in proactive planning for new construction projects to reduce wildlife mortality on roads. With estimated human population growth in North Carolina with approximately 80,000 miles of United States-maintained highways, it is imperative that we implement effective mitigation strategies in the interest of wildlife conservation and diversity.
How you can help
- Educate yourself, friends and family on this topic and get involved in advocating for wildlife.
- Safe Passage: Volunteers and support organizations making a difference to wildlife, including the I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project.
- drive safely! When traveling, look for wildlife crossing signs. By simply slowing down in areas where wildlife is known to cross, you can reduce the risk of a wildlife-vehicle collision.
The collaborative nature of this project has shown that when partnerships are formed, and stakeholder input is valued, we can develop solutions to challenging human-wildlife issues. We look forward to the analysis of scientific data that will inform the next steps in the coalition’s effort to provide safe passageways for wildlife.
Thanks to all dedicated Smokies Safe Passage Partners:
protector of wildlife
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
Great Smoky Mountain Association
National Park Conservation Association
National Park Service
NC Department of Transportation
NC Wildlife Association
NC Wildlife Resources Commission
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy
TN Transport Department
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