Idaho Works to Make Travel Safer—for Drivers and Big Game

Mule deer pause by a fence along U.S. Highway 30 in southeast Idaho. Some 6,000 of these animals cross this road at a spot called Rocky Point as they move between their summer and winter ranges. Matthew Pieron/Idaho Department of Fish and Game
Mule deer pause by a fence along U.S. Highway 30 in southeast Idaho. Some 6,000 of these animals cross this road at a spot called Rocky Point as they move between their summer and winter ranges. Matthew Pieron/Idaho Department of Fish and Game

Pew Charitable Trusts  January 17, 2020  By: Matt Skroch & Nic Callero 

 

Exciting things are underway in  the southeast corner of Idaho that  will make travel safer there for humans and  wildlife. More than 100  mule deer die each year from vehicle collisions along a  short section  of U.S. Highway 30, jeopardizing the long-term survival of this   population and its historic migratory behavior. The collisions also pose  a significant  risk to drivers.

In response, Idaho  Fish and Game and the state Transportation  Department are working together to  design a solution to help wildlife  safely cross this segment of Highway 30 at  Rocky Point, 9 miles  southeast of the town of Montpelier. This project could protect thousands of mule deer and other big game by eliminating a significant   impediment along their migration corridor. In a vital first step, the state collaborated with private landowners and conservation groups to  protect  surrounding land.

Roughly 6,000  mule deer cross Highway 30 at Rocky Point as they move  between their summer  range in the Caribou Mountains and winter range  on the Bear Lake Plateau, which  is a mix of private property and public  land. This herd is a subset of one of  Idaho’s largest mule deer herds,  numbering roughly 20,000 animals. Mule deer  are a key piece of  southeast Idaho’s economy, drawing millions of dollars in  annual  spending by hunters and wildlife watchers.

In milder winters, with more accessible food and easier  travel, some  deer may cross the highway dozens of times per year, taking advantage   of available winter habitat adjacent to the highway. New technologies,  such as  GPS-enabled collars that allow biologists to track animal  movements in real  time, have dramatically enhanced experts’ knowledge  about where and when large  ungulates such as mule deer, elk, and  pronghorn move. The study of wildlife  corridors has shed light on how  development, including roads, energy exploration,  and residential  construction, can impede or block vital routes for numerous  species. 

 Mule deer numbers are decreasing across  the vast majority of the  western U.S., while wildlife-vehicle collisions are  increasing in  frequency nationwide. These collisions are among many obstacles,   including recent harsh winters, droughts, declining aspen forests, and   increasing development, that the animals face during their annual  migrations. 

In December  Idaho Fish and Game finalized two voluntary conservation  easements at Rocky  Point, on both sides of Highway 30, that will  permanently protect crucial  migration areas for big game on more than  1,800 acres of private land.  

Conservation  easements—in which landowners agree not to develop  property, and in some cases  open it to the public—are important tools  in protecting places of natural,  cultural, or historical value. 

In this case,  the easements preserve sagebrush-steppe rangeland  along the mule deer migration  route and winter range. The properties  will also be open to the public for  hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing,  and other activities, and will connect  public lands on either side of  the highway. Without the easements, future  development could obstruct  migration of mule deer, as well as elk, pronghorn,  and moose. With the  easements in place the agencies can now plan and develop  safe wildlife  crossings. 

The Idaho Fish and Game and  Transportation departments have forged  an important partnership to secure the easements  at Rocky Point. The  Pew Charitable Trusts joins a diverse range of groups  supporting the  easements and the wildlife crossings. These groups include the   Southeast Idaho Mule Deer Foundation, Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust,  Southern  Idaho Chapter of Muley Fanatic Foundation, National Fish and  Wildlife  Foundation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Knobloch Family  Foundation, Idaho  Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Center for Large  Landscape Conservation.

Once  complete, the Rocky Point project will help Idaho and the U.S.  Department of the  Interior achieve key priorities for wildlife  conservation. Pew supports this  project and provided technical comments  on it to the Idaho Transportation  Department. 

Matt Skroch is a manager and Nic Callero is a  principal  associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers   conservation team.