Conservation Outdoors Sustainability

Sustainability: Wildlife Corridors Help WNC Animals Travel Safely

Bobcat in culvert under I-40. Photo courtesy of National Parks Conservation Association and Wildlands Network

By Paula Musto

Crossing urban streets and roads can be daunting even when carefully adhering to crosswalks and traffic signals. When leg surgery earlier this year mandated using a cane and a slower pace, I became even more aware of the dangers of speeding vehicles as I searched for a safe place to step off the curb. I also began thinking about wildlife: How do animals with no protection against traffic make it across safely? Images of what we humans call roadkill entered my mind at every corner.

But there is some good news for the wild critters! President Biden signed into law last fall a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure program that includes $350 million for safe wildlife crossings. The funds will be spent across the US on projects including specially designed culverts—underpasses and overpasses—that allow wildlife a better chance to safely make it across the road. Western North Carolina with its large wildlife population is expected to benefit from the program.

Photo by Doris Boteler

“This is an idea whose time has come,” says Ron Sutherland, chief scientist for Wildlands Network, a national nonprofit that conducts research on how wildlife interacts with roadways and advocates for practical infrastructure solutions to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions. The US, he says, lags behind other countries in creating safe animal passages when constructing roads. But, thanks to social media and organizations like Wildland Network, there is growing interest here. Sutherland is hopeful the new federal funding will lead to more permanent dollars dedicated to safe crossing projects.

For eons, wild animals guided by instinct have traveled across landscapes seeking food, shelter and mates. But humans have made this natural migration increasingly more difficult by fragmenting forests and other natural habitats, bisecting the land with roadways that carry fast-moving cars and trucks. Every 26 seconds a driver hits an animal in the US according to Safe Passage, a coalition of conservation organizations dedicated to finding solutions and raising funds to reduce vehicle-wildlife collisions. Each year, in addition to killing 1–2 million large animals, it is estimated these crashes cause tens of thousands of human injuries and hundreds of human fatalities nationwide. The economic toll is said to be more than $12 billion in the US annually.

In addition to the cost and human safety, wildlife crossings are important for helping species migrate in a time of rapid climate change. Species move following their preferred environmental conditions. As temperatures grow warmer at lower elevations and lower latitudes, the animals will seek higher ground and migrate northwards (in this hemisphere), but often these climate gradients are now blocked by roads.

“For example,” Sutherland says, “I-40 cuts off the tremendous Southern Appalachian biodiversity in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from being able to migrate northwards into the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests as things warm up. Similar examples abound across the country. Unless mitigation structures are installed, interstates and other busy roads become death traps for animals.”

Wildlands Network is working with other organizations to partner with the state to identify priority projects once the federal money becomes available. Examples include the I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project on the NC-TN border where Wildlands Network is working with the National Parks Conservation Association and other partners to document heavy wildlife movement along a 28-mile stretch of roadway. Another critical area is along I-40 at Kitsuma Peak, a summit on the Blue Ridge east of Asheville, where abundant forest flanks both sides of the road, but steady traffic makes crossing difficult. Also west of Asheville, a wildlife corridor at the Buncombe-Haywood county line is cut off by I-40 where the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy recently purchased Chestnut Mountain Preserve.

Wildlife overpass and underpass (Finley creek 2), US Hwy 93, Flathead Indian Reservation, Montana; (Main) Elk crossing. Photo by Doris Boteler

While much of the focus is on large mammals—especially deer, elk and bears in our region—conservationists say that the smaller species also need safe passage. Small creatures like slow-moving box turtles, bobcats and female opossums, often hauling a brood of babies on their backs, cross the road at their own risk. Many don’t make it to the other side.

“These animals need our help—our busy roadways are causing serious declines, sometimes even elimination of certain species in local areas,” says Carlton Burke, a naturalist and advisor to Appalachian Wildlife Refuge, a Candler-based nonprofit which cares for injured and orphaned animals, many of them victims of vehicle collisions.

Animals require a diverse gene flow if their populations are to remain healthy, Burke says. High roadkill rates limit breeding opportunities and curtail the genetic mix, causing a decline in the species.

Burke has spent considerable time documenting wildlife-vehicle collisions over the years during his many commutes. The numbers and variety of dead animals is staggering. “The only animals I have not seen dead on the road are fish,” he says.

In addition to infrastructure solutions, Burke says there are other precautions humans can take including simply reducing their speed and being on the lookout for animals when driving through wildlife areas. “It’s good for the animals and good for us,” he says.

Paula Musto is a volunteer for Appalachian Wildlife Refuge. Visit AppalachianWild.org for more information on how to support wildlife.

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