Here’s how recently passed legislation will be implemented to improve habitat connectivity and help wildlife safely cross our roadways
In one of the major victories for conservation this year, the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law in November provides new federal funding for projects and research to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and improve habitat connectivity for mule deer, elk, and pronghorn. One of the key provisions is the establishment of a new wildlife crossings pilot program that will dedicate $350 million over a five-year period for the construction of new wildlife-friendly overpasses, underpasses, and fences that funnel animals safely across roads.
This is a major win because, for the first time ever, there is now programmatic federal investment to directly support the work of state wildlife and transportation agencies focusing on this issue. Sportsmen and sportswomen understand that crossing infrastructure is essential to supporting the unimpeded movement of wildlife as animals follow seasonal and historical migrations each year. But it also reduces wildlife-vehicle collisions that cost human lives and millions of dollars in property damage.
We’ve known for years that crossings are effective, but without this dedicated funding, projects were harder to pay for because they were in competition with other transportation infrastructure needs. With just a fraction of a percent of the total spend on American infrastructure recently approved by Congress and the president, this investment will make an outsized impact on migratory wildlife populations and human safety.
Here’s what you need to know about the next steps for this first-of-its-kind program.
How It Will Work
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act directed the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to distribute the $350 million over five years through a competitive grant process to projects that reduce the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions and improve wildlife connectivity. The first $60 million will be awarded before September 30, 2022.
There are many strong examples of projects that could serve as models for the pilot program. In Wyoming, the Trappers Point project, completed in 2012 at a cost of $12 million, has enabled thousands of mule deer and pronghorns to cross the highway safely each year. The Wyoming Department of Transportation estimated that prior to the crossing’s construction, motor vehicle collisions with wildlife at the site resulted in $500,000 in damage annually. In the first three years, the overpasses and underpasses at Trappers Point saw 85,000 documented wildlife crossings, while vehicle-wildlife collisions decreased by about 80 percent.
In northeastern Nevada, a herd of over 5,000 mule deer utilize a series of five crossings and four underpasses that were constructed over Highway 93 and Interstate 80 at a cost of approximately $35 million. These structures have resulted in nearly 40,000 documented safe crossings since the projects began in 2010.
Oregon’s first crossing—completed in 2012 in the central part of the state along Highway 97—has reduced collisions by 85 percent. It has supported safe crossing for more than 40 different species, but mule deer in particular have benefited as they migrate between their summer and winter ranges. The Oregon Department of Transportation has identified at least 10 more projects like this that are currently awaiting funding. Many other states are in the same boat.
More Bang (and Less Crash) for the Buck
The Nevada Department of Transportation believes that if there are five or more vehicle collisions with deer per mile of road each year, it actually costs more to do nothing than to build the crossing structures. In fact, evaluation, engineering, and siting of these wildlife projects should be part of any roadway expansion and considered upfront when possible.
What’s more, Western states in particular have demonstrated significant leadership on building crossings where it most benefits migratory wildlife and keeps migration corridors intact. This makes federal infrastructure dollars go even further by also creating habitat gains.
Dedicated funding will help get those projects done sooner, but more data may be necessary in some states to prioritize the most important crossing projects. Migration mapping from GPS-collared animals, paired with data showing where animals are most frequently hit on highways, helps agencies pinpoint where these crossing projects are most needed. Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon and several other states have already used wildlife and transportation data to prioritize locations for crossings to build projects into long-term transportation plans. This kind of planning will help put new funds to work quickly, and clearly demonstrates a need for further investment.
Next Steps for Conservation Success
The Federal Highway Administration is currently accepting public comment on implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, allowing stakeholders and the public the opportunity to suggest the best process for soliciting, reviewing, and awarding grant applications through the new competitive grant program for crossings. Over the coming months, the TRCP and its partners will submit formal comments and meet with these officials to ensure that funding gets awarded as quickly as possible and to projects that support the movement of big game species.
Meanwhile, at the state level, the TRCP will continue to support mapping and prioritization efforts that lead to projects that can compete successfully for grant funding. Our field representatives will meet with state wildlife and transportation agencies to help facilitate collaborative efforts, inform state legislators about its importance, and coordinate with other stakeholder groups to build momentum and public support. All of this will help ensure that states are able to utilize funding from the new crossings program most effectively.
The pilot program’s $350 million over five years is an unprecedented amount of funding specifically for wildlife crossings, but we know that project needs far outweigh the available funds. In the long term, it will be critical to demonstrate the success of this program and the need for continued and increased funding beyond 2026. Securing this important funding is just the start of a long road ahead for our work to get more wildlife crossing projects built in support of our big game herds.
UPDATE: Now you can encourage decision-makers in your state to prioritize the construction of wildlife crossings and apply for the dedicated funding that is newly available through this first-of-its-kind competitive grant program. Sign our open letter in support of wildlife crossing projects in your state.
You can also support these ongoing priorities by considering making a donation before the end of the year. Here’s where you can find out about SITKA’s generous offer to match new and increased donations to the TRCP, making your gift go further for conservation. And here’s why we call on you for your individual support of our mission at this time each year. It matters more than you know.
Top photo: Greg Nickerson/Wyoming Migration Initiative