Retrofitting busy highways to let wildlife travel safely, too

Mark Lawler, an environmental specialist with the Colorado Department of Transportation, consults images of a tunnel created for wildlife’s safe passage beneath three lanes of speeding traffic. (Matthew Staver for The Washington Post)
Mark Lawler, an environmental specialist with the Colorado Department of Transportation, consults images of a tunnel created for wildlife’s safe passage beneath three lanes of speeding traffic. (Matthew Staver for The Washington Post)

      By  Jennifer Oldham     October 11 at 5:15 PM  Washington Post

COLLEGIATE PEAKS SCENIC BYWAY, Colo. — U.S. Highway 285 was once a death zone for the dwindling herds of elk  and mule deer on Colorado’s Western Slope. But today it offers a  lifeline, helping them travel from their summer range high in the  mountains to winter foraging grounds along the Arkansas River. 

For  the past year, a tunnel dipping under three lanes of speeding traffic  has beckoned. And as frost descended recently on subalpine meadows and  glittering-gold aspen, a huge bull elk, measuring at least nine feet  from antlers to hoofs, entered the structure ever so cautiously.  Infrared cameras on both ends captured his meandering.

“Yes!”  exulted Mark Lawler, an environmental specialist with the state  transportation department, sitting under the 25-foot-wide tunnel arch  and watching images pop up on his laptop. The ground there was marked by  coyote, deer and even squirrel tracks, more proof of success. But  Lawler was focusing on the elk’s safe passage. He “won’t be hit by  someone on the highway.”

 

The $3.5 million project is one of several planned for Colorado’s ever more crowded roads, on  which some 4,000 bears, bighorn sheep, coyotes and myriad other animals  died last year. The cost of the carnage exceeded $80 million, according  to state officials.

Across  the country, as development continues to encroach on natural areas,  wildlife-vehicle collisions are taking a massive toll. More than 1.9  million animal-collision insurance claims were filed in fiscal 2019, a  State Farm report found, with some researchers estimating the annual price tag of the  resulting human fatalities, wildlife mortality, injuries, vehicle damage  and other costs at almost $10 billion.

Yet  advances in satellite tracking technology are helping biologists to  better understand how many animals rely on corridors — strips of land  that link habitats — and how wildlife crossings over and under roads are  essential to reconnect these shrinking settings. Federal and state  officials, conservationists and landowners are now partnering across  borders on remedies.

 “Our  ecosystems are in crisis due to habitat loss, deforestation and, of  course, climate change,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who in May  introduced a Wildlife Corridors Conservation bill with bipartisan support. The measure would provide federal land  managers the authority to establish corridors, set aside $78.5 million  in funding, in part for regional projects, and order the creation of a  federal wildlife connectivity database.

“The science is clear that corridors help protect our most vulnerable species,” Udall said in an interview.


 Research and video feeds show that specially designed crossings have protected scores of pronghorn antelope in Wyoming, panthers in Florida, mule deer in Nevada, moose along “Slaughter Row” in Utah and grizzly and black bears in Montana from oncoming cars and trucks. Mortality dropped by as much as 90 percent, studies show. 

 Beyond  maintaining populations, such projects ensure that ailing ecosystems  retain biodiversity, scientists note. The strategy works for flora, too.  A new study based on a decades-long experiment that restored longleaf pine savanna  in South Carolina found that fewer plants went extinct in connected  habitats.

“We  need to create, or support, maintaining wildlife movement and  connectivity at landscape scale because it has long-term genetic  consequences,” said Rob Ament, road ecology program manager at the  Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, who is  consulting on a project in Asia that will benefit rhinos, tigers and elephants. “We built our  interstate system in the 1950s and 1960s before we knew this, and now we  must retrofit it to connect landscapes across major highways.”

Under a 2018 secretarial order,  the Interior Department is funding work in 11 Western states to  identify wildlife corridors and what threatens them, and to create plans and partnerships to preserve such areas. Casey Stemler, a senior  adviser in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, recalls asking those  states to list the key risks to the corridors, “and they all said  highways.” A Senate transportation bill includes $250 million for a five-year wildlife-crossing pilot program.

 New Mexico and Colorado officials are collaborating with tribes, the National Wildlife Federation, sportsmen’s  organizations and landowners pushing for special management areas to  protect corridors across three national forests — Rio Grande in Colorado  and Carson and Santa Fe in New Mexico. Collectively, they represent one  of the least fragmented wildlife landscapes in the continental United  States, with elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorns, lynx, black  bears and cougars traveling among them.

“When  you have two areas that promote wildlife movement from forest to  forest, region to region, and state to state, it sets a strong  precedent,” said Jeremy Romero, the federation’s regional connectivity  coordinator. “We are hoping this can be a West-wide model.”

States  are independently prioritizing wildlife corridors and crossings, too.  New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) in March signed  legislation directing her transportation and game and fish agencies to work with  tribes in using GPS data from wildlife fitted with electronic collars to  identify roads that hinder migration. A plan listing the top proposed  corridor projects is to be submitted to the legislature by January.

Tracks provide evidence that animals use the $3.5 million tunnel project. (Matthew Staver for The Washington Post/For The Washington Post)
Tracks provide evidence that animals use the $3.5 million tunnel project. (Matthew Staver for The Washington Post/For The Washington Post)

 And under an executive   order from  Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) in August, his natural resources  department is studying migration patterns in advance of developing new  policies. “We want to ensure conservation of big-game winter range so we  can grow our outdoor recreation economy and protect the diversity of  our wildlife,” Polis said in a recent interview. 

 Meanwhile, engineers in Southern California are designing the world’s largest animal crossing. The $87 million overpass,  which will span a 10-lane Los Angeles freeway, is a bid to save the  region’s mountain lions by reconnecting habitats in the Santa Monica  Mountains with those to the north. Other creatures also are expected to  traverse it.

Roadway  ecologists emphasize crossings’ cost-effectiveness. Every vehicle-elk  collision avoided meant $17,483 per kilometer per year in car repairs  and medical expenses averted, a 2009 Montana study found. With moose, the figure jumped to $30,760. 

“A  lot of these structures, we’ve done the math on them and they can  effectively pay for themselves in a decade,” said Hall Sawyer, a  research biologist at West Inc., an environmental consulting firm in  Cheyenne, Wyo.

 Key  to crossings’ success are fences that direct wildlife toward the site  and structure, metal guards that keep animals off roads at  intersections, and earthen ramps that allow them to exit. 

A  couple of hours west of Colorado Springs, the project along Highway 285  has two miles of eight-foot fencing on either side of the asphalt to  funnel animals into a trio of box culverts constructed in the late  1960s. Its location near the small town of Buena Vista is not  happenstance: Lawler compared law enforcement crash data on injuries  from wildlife-vehicle collisions and carcass removal information  collected by maintenance crews, then talked with wildlife managers in  the area and coordinated with private landowners.

The  effort paid off: The bodies of elk and mule deer no longer litter the  road. Instead, Lawler watches remotely as they amble with little danger  through the tunnel.

 The  state transportation department plans to hire a firm next spring to  track data from the structure’s cameras and better quantify the  crossing’s effectiveness.

“It  would be great if someday wildlife treatments are seen as stand-alone  projects,” said Lawler, glancing up at the pinyon- and juniper-covered  hillside where animals case the underpass for safety. “I can see that  day coming.”

Elk stand near U.S. Highway 285 in Colorado. (Matthew Staver for The Washington Post/For The Washington Post)
Elk stand near U.S. Highway 285 in Colorado. (Matthew Staver for The Washington Post/For The Washington Post)