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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
America’s public lands agencies go through a planning process that may sound tedious, but it’s your chance to have a say in how habitat and hunting and fishing areas will be managed for 20 years or more—it’s your land, so be part of the plan
America’s public lands embody our nation’s ideals—they’re owned by every one of us and, no doubt, they offer opportunity to all, regardless of one’s background or standing. But public lands reflect our culture in yet another way: The American people themselves determine how these lands should be managed and in what condition they will be handed down to future generations.
This happens through the land-use planning process, the goal of which is to produce documents that outline how the Forest Service and BLM will balance the many demands on public lands in a particular area. Wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, grazing, timber harvest, and energy extraction each have their rightful place on our public lands, and this process ultimately determines where and when these various uses occur.
When organizations like the TRCP ask sportsmen and women to engage in the public process of planning for future public land use, it may sound like too much of a burden on your time—we ask you to read this, learn more, click here, show up, and speak out. But the land-use planning process is the American public’s best opportunity to see that our land is managed according to our values.
Here’s everything you need to know about land-use planning and how you can get involved.
This process begins with an assessment of the resources in, say, your local national forest or your local BLM field office, and a consideration of the various ways in which those resources could be utilized. Afterward, the public weighs in on these different options and voices its opinions on how its lands should best be managed.
The resulting product, usually some combination of proposals from several plans, sets the agency’s goals for the management of a given area over the ensuing decades.
Land-use plans guide every on-the-ground action of our land management agencies. They allocate resources and determine appropriate multiple uses for our land; they outline strategies to manage and conserve our resources; and they set up a process for measuring the success of these strategies over time. Decisions such as where to build and maintain roads and trails, how to balance wildlife habitat with development, and where to prioritize active habitat management take their shape from these critical documents.
The agencies that manage our public lands face competing claims and requests on a daily basis from various stakeholder groups. Land-use planning emerged during the 1970s, when our public lands faced escalating demands on natural resources and Congress directed the agencies to more conscientiously manage public lands for many uses.
Planning ensures that decisions across a landscape don’t collectively undermine the values that the American people believe should guide its management. It is a forward-looking process and ultimately will determine the outdoor legacy that today’s sportsmen and women will pass on to the next generation.
Each federal agency has its own specific process for planning, but they are all required to involve the public in the process by rules established in the National Environmental Policy Act.
This is why formal public comment periods are typically incorporated into two phases of the planning process—initially during the “scoping” period and then again after the completion of a draft land-use plan. National forest planning includes additional opportunities for the public to be involved early on, while the BLM’s “pre-planning” for Resource Management Plan (RMP) revisions is for the most part internally focused on budgets, staffing, etc.
In the scoping phase, the agency informs the public of its intention to revise or rewrite an existing land use plan. At this point, a public comment period offers hunters and anglers a critical opportunity to raise issues of concern and provide recommendations for public land management within the planning area.
After taking into account these comments, the agency will develop a draft land-use plan that outlines several potential options for how to manage the landscape, known as “proposed alternatives” in agency lingo. Generally speaking, they will range from minimal restrictions on extractive industries to maximum consideration for conservation priorities. The agency will also recommend one of these specific options—usually somewhere in-between these two extremes—as its preferred alternative.
Here, we know which way the agency is leaning, but another public comment period allows hunters and anglers to weigh in and influence the outcome of the process. The agency can include in the final plan any of the measures proposed in the full range of alternatives, so public comments can recommend the best ideas from any of the various options.
Even though one alternative is preferred, it isn’t over until it’s over.
The onus is on the BLM and Forest Service to be transparent about this process. The agencies must formally announce the duration of each comment period, as well as where, when, and how comments can be submitted. In addition to written submissions, the scoping and draft-plan phases allow the public to voice comments in person at meetings held by the agency in local communities. Both methods of input receive the same consideration, but sharing your story face-to-face can certainly make your concerns more compelling to agency personnel.
By law, the agency must consider all of these comments as the final land-use plan develops. That document must be reviewed by the governor of that state and can be formally protested by the public before it is formally adopted through a “record of decision.”
Although hunters and anglers have stepped up with overwhelming passion when threatened by proposals for public land transfer and disposal (remember the amazing response to Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s H.R. 621?), it’s difficult to bring that same energy to the proactive planning process.
Nonetheless, RMPs and Forest Plans couldn’t be more critical to the future of wildlife, access, and our public land traditions. These documents in large part determine whether development will be balanced with the interests of wildlife and sportsmen. They can ensure that our highest-value hunting and fishing grounds remain accessible and intact and that existing outdoor recreation opportunities will be defended—and improved—for future generations.
But that all depends on our community speaking up. You can be absolutely certain that other stakeholders will advocate for their interests during the planning process, so sportsmen and women can’t afford to sit on the sidelines.
Top photo: Eliot Phillips
A brief history of the Clean Water Act and how an EPA rule could strip many streams and wetlands of its protection
In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland was so polluted by the steel mills that lined its banks the water literally caught fire. Sparks from a passing train turned into flames that billowed five stories high, causing $50,000 worth of damage, destroying a bridge, and halting rail travel. It was a national media event that spurred Congress to pass a series of landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, to clean up and protect America’s water.
Since the early 1970s, the Clean Water Act has been wildly successful, resulting in the restoration of hundreds of thousands of miles of rivers and streams that are now safe for fishing and swimming. The Act has helped hold polluters accountable and prevent 700 billion pounds of toxic pollutants from entering our nation’s waters each year.
Unfortunately, 40 years later the current administration is proposing to weaken its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act by redefining which waters are protected.
If you read the debate from when Congress passed the Act, it’s clear that Americans didn’t just want to protect large rivers that can accommodate barges. We wanted a comprehensive national program that preserved places like the Cuyahoga River in the east and the smaller headwaters trout streams in the West.
We must remember that intent as we gear up for yet another fight for clean water.
Some will falsely claim the Trump Administration’s proposed clean water rule is simply undoing what the Obama Administration put in place. But in 2015, the Obama Administration protected an additional 5 percent of streams under the Clean Water Act. Now the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers are proposing to undo far more than that. The new rule would eliminate protections from more than 18 percent of the nation’s stream miles and more than 50 percent of our remaining wetlands, including critical habitat for fish, ducks, and other migratory birds.
This new proposal would reverse decades of protections that were put in place to ensure clean water would be available for future generations. If this plan goes into effect, every hunter and angler stands to lose.
So now what? As a partnership that exists to ensure all Americans have great places to hunt and fish, the TRCP asks sportsmen and women to raise their voices. With all the other threats to our nation’s waters, now is not the time for the federal government to abandon its responsibility to conserve the streams and wetlands that support healthy fisheries and flyways.
Photo courtesy of Cleveland State University Library.
Public comment period opens today on rule that would exclude many streams and wetlands from Clean Water Act protections
The Environmental Protection Agency today officially published a proposed rule that would roll back protections for 50 percent of wetlands and 18 percent of stream miles in America. This kickstarts a 60-day comment period for Americans to weigh in on the proposed rule, which does not include Clean Water Act protections for ephemeral streams—those that only flow after rainfall—and wetlands that are not connected to other waters.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is calling on individual sportsmen and women to respond by April 15 and urge the EPA not to overlook critical fish and waterfowl habitat.
“Clean water is vital to our hunting and fishing traditions and the booming outdoor recreation economy,” said Whit Fosburgh, the TRCP’s president and CEO. “This proposal disregards the importance of smaller streams and isolated wetlands and the Clean Water Act’s 40-year track record of improving America’s waterways. A rollback of this magnitude puts fish and wildlife at serious risk. The EPA must listen to the millions of sportsmen and women who rely on clean water.”
Before finalizing the 2015 clean water rule, the EPA held a 120-day comment period and ultimately allowed the public a total of 200 days to respond to the proposal. The EPA is now only giving the public just 60 days to submit feedback on the replacement rule.
“The agencies need to give sportsmen and women sufficient time to speak out, given the gravity of this rule,” said Fosburgh. “Sixty days is not enough.”
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More