A TRCP-led workshop brings biologists, planners, and engineers together to resolve a massive obstacle to big game migration—our roads and highways
With a spectacular sunset hanging over the Nebraska prairie, I loaded my chocolate labs into the truck at the end of a great afternoon of sharptail grouse hunting. It had been the perfect rest stop to break up a long drive, while also yielding some exercise, a limit of birds, and another memory in the field. But it was time to get moving.
Pulling off a deeply rutted dirt road onto pavement, I accelerated to the speed limit—or thereabouts— set my cruise control, and settled in.
And then it happened. Before I could pump the brakes, flash the lights, or honk the horn, I was on top of a small herd of mule deer with only enough time to grab the steering wheel tight and brace for the inevitable impact. Once the vehicle slowed to a stop, I spun the truck around and returned to where my vehicle had struck one of the does.
I’ve walked up on many big game animals taken while hunting, usually with a strong mix of emotions, and always grateful. But as I approached the dead deer on the side of the highway, I only felt regret for what seemed like a useless loss of life.
An All Too Frequent and Costly Scenario
I suspect nearly every sportsman or woman has a story—or several—about collisions and near misses with wildlife on roads and highways. According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, drivers filed more than 1.8 million animal-strike claims, mostly involving deer, at an average cost of about $3,000 each between 2014 and 2017. That’s a more than $5.4-billion cost to insurance companies alone in just four years.
These accidents also cost state transportation and wildlife agencies dearly in time, resources, and other expenses. Rural states like South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, which have high rates of vehicle-wildlife collisions, spend upwards of tens of millions of dollars annually responding to wildlife-vehicle collisions.
But this issue goes beyond safety hazards, loss of human and animal life, property damage, and other economic costs.
Can Deer Even Cross the Road?
Roads and highways are pervasive features across landscapes where they never used to be. By their very nature, they break up habitat into fragments and have the potential to severely disrupt animal migrations. The numerous interstate highways that cross our nation north to south and east to west present major obstacles for animals trying to move from one area to another to reach seasonal habitat and winter range.
Maps overlaid with GPS-collar data show quite clearly how abruptly migrations halt in cases where animals reach an interstate highway. Data from several studies compiled by the Wyoming Migration Initiative indicates that I-80 in southern Wyoming serves as a significant barrier to movement for pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and elk. Likewise in Arizona, biologists have identified a 31-mile segment of I-17 as a hotspot for collisions and a movement barrier for migrating elk.
Fortunately, there are solutions in the form of structural crossings that allow animals to move either over or under the highway, and ample scientific evidence illustrates their effectiveness. More than 20 years ago, the Canadian government installed six overpasses and 38 underpasses along the Trans-Canada Highway, long recognized as a barrier for big game and other wildlife. Now, it’s considered an international conservation success story—these efforts reduced vehicle-wildlife collisions by 80 percent.
Many states across the U.S. have enjoyed similar results from installing over- and underpasses along major highways. Wyoming’s Trapper’s Point on Highway 191 and Highway 9 in Colorado are good examples of how effective this approach can be. Still, there are many places where wildlife-vehicle collisions and barriers to movement remain a problem for human safety and the conservation of our big game herds.
Bridging the Gap
When former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed an Order to improve habitat quality in big game winter range and migration corridors—a policy lauded by sportsmen and women—the Department asked the 11 Western states covered by the policy to submit their top three to five priority project sites for mule deer, elk, or pronghorns to be worked into collaborative action plans. Significantly, highway crossings ranked among the top priorities for every state. Some even called out multiple roadways—all five of Idaho’s priority projects involved highways and issues with animal movement and collisions.
That’s why DOI asked the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to organize a gathering of experts and decision-makers to discuss how we can get more wildlife crossings where they are most needed.
More than 80 participants from 11 state wildlife agencies, 12 state departments of transportation, three federal agencies, and several NGOs and foundations gathered in Salt Lake City in late January. We discussed the differences in how wildlife agencies and DOTs operate, lessons learned from past efforts, assessed what policies currently exist, and identified partnership, funding and policy needs to address the issue.
Collaboration Will Be Key
While Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana had held similar workshops at the state level, never before had professionals from multiple states gathered together to discuss highways and big game migration and collisions to learn from one another’s successes and failures. And this collaborative aspect was key for the success of the event. We wanted to foster connections across state agencies and among stakeholders, identify best practices and key points of leverage for action, and advance the states’ priorities under the Secretarial Order on migration.
It became clear that engineers with state DOTs—the talented people who build and maintain roads, bridges, and other structures to allow the movement of vehicles safely and efficiently from point A to B—and biologists need to work better together. Monte Aldridge from the Utah DOT summed up this lesson very simply, advising wildlife managers to “get to know an engineer.”
Another takeaway was that wildlife and personnel from a state DOT and wildlife agency personnel need to communicate early and often, with an eye towards solutions that allow all parties to achieve their goals. In the past, by the time wildlife professionals engaged in the planning process and identified the need for an under- or overpass, it might have been too late.
And, of course, all participants recognized that there is never enough money to go around. Ideas were exchanged about how NGOs, foundations, private landowners, and other entities can partner with federal agencies to help state wildlife agencies and DOTs successfully fund and maintain wildlife highway projects.
The Worst Thing We Can Do Is Nothing
Utah DOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras gave voice to the spirit of the workshop by quoting Theodore Roosevelt and telling the crowd that “the best thing we can do is the right thing, the second-best thing we can do is the wrong thing, and the worst thing we can do is nothing.” He encouraged the group to share not only their successes but also their challenges, pitfalls, and mistakes so that others can learn from them.
The work ahead is really where the proverbial rubber will hit the road, not only for the state-identified priority projects, but also for the many areas across the country where wildlife and transportation conflicts need attention. This workshop was one step toward helping to ensure our wildlife conservation and transportation needs can be integrated, and the lessons learned should help with the larger efforts down the road.
Among other things, this gathering illustrated the role that the sporting community must continue to play as a partner with our state and federal agencies and other stakeholders to address wildlife-transportation conflicts. The solutions, while expensive and not easily planned or installed on a whim, are well-studied and proven. But we need to encourage the support and political will of agency leads and decision-makers to help keep the momentum rolling.
Top photo: Gregory Nickerson/Wyoming Migration Initiative