I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project
By Emma Castleberry
Many of us are overcome by a sense of helplessness when we see a dead animal on the side of the road. But what if there were a way to prevent this often-fatal collision of the natural and modern worlds, and make it easier for humans and wildlife to live in harmony?
This is the goal of Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project, a group that is researching wildlife movement patterns and mortality in the gorge. The resulting data will be used to address the issue of vehicle–wildlife collisions with solutions such as wildlife overpasses and underpasses, along with fencing to funnel animals to these crossing structures. Several bridge replacement sites already planned by departments of transportation—including ones at Harmon Den, White Oak Road and the Pigeon River south of Fines Creek—provide opportunities for Safe Passage to recommend mitigations to help wildlife cross more safely.
Many organizations are involved in the project, including Great Smoky Mountains Association, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), Wildlands Network and The Wilderness Society (TWS). “I-40 has a major effect on wildlife,” says Hugh Irwin, a landscape conservation planner with TWS. “When the interstate highway system was planned and built during the 20th century, how these highways would affect existing wildlife movement corridors was not considered. There have been only a few studies documenting the economic effects of wildlife collisions, although the studies that have been done clearly show that wildlife crossing structures quickly pay for themselves through avoidance of loss of life and property.” The cost of hitting a deer with one’s car averages around $6,000. Running into an elk can cost upwards of $17,000.
These numbers, of course, can’t and don’t account for the loss of human and animal life. “The Southern Appalachians ranks among the highest levels of biodiversity of any ecoregion in North America,” says Irwin. This is in part because the Appalachian landscape naturally facilitates unfettered movement of various species, allowing animals to migrate and adapt in response to a changing climate.
“The Safe Passage project focuses on a 28-mile section of I-40 where it winds through the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, cutting off the tremendous biodiversity of Great Smoky Mountains National Park from extensive national forest lands to the northeast,” says Christine Laporte, eastern program director for Wildlands Network. “The ecological importance of the region, along with the severity of vehicle collisions with elk, deer and bears, presents a significant opportunity to mitigate the highway impacts on wildlife through the study of road ecology.”
Wildlands Network is collaborating with NPCA on the research in the gorge. “Reconnecting the adjacent public lands that were fragmented by I-40 when it opened in 1968 will make this landscape more resilient to climate change by allowing wildlife to safely move north in response to our warming world,” says Jeff Hunter, senior program manager for NPCA. “The win-win is that in addition to helping wildlife, our work has the potential to make this corridor safer for motorists by keeping large mammals off the highway.”
Visit SmokiesSafePassage.org to learn more and donate to the Safe Passage Fund, which will be used to assist the Department of Transportation in securing and installing the collision mitigation structures like fencing to safely assist animals across I-40.
Engaging Youth in Wildlife Crossings
The book A Search for Safe Passage, written by Frances Figart and illustrated by Emma DuFort, introduces youth ages 7-13 to the needs for wildlife crossings. The book includes a song, “Safe Passage: Animals Need a Hand,” which can be found on YouTube. Find the book at SmokiesInformation.org.