Drivers, wildlife benefit from safer roadways

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Drivers, wildlife benefit from safer roadways

Dan Bailey, NPCA Yellowstone Program Manager
Dan Bailey, NPCA Yellowstone Program Manager

 By Dan Bailey Guest Columnist, January 4, 2020  Bozeman Daily Chronicle

The New Year and start of a new  decade opens opportunities for not just yearlong goal-setting but  creating a larger vision for the future. Within Montana, the new decade  brings a chance to create an expanded vision and commitment to the  safety of drivers and wildlife on the roadways.

During  the last decade, the National Parks Conservation Association worked  within Montana to expand habitat access for Yellowstone pronghorn as  they migrate to and from the park. By partnering with private landowners  and public land managers, and working alongside volunteers, we removed  or modified dozens of miles of fences that previously blocked the  animals from reaching winter habitat and other herds in the region. In  many cases, the simple act of spending a morning removing old fencing  opened migration corridors that blocked Yellowstone pronghorn for more  than a century. While this work continues, our larger vision includes a  future where roadways are no longer a barrier for migrating pronghorn  and provide safer passage for wildlife and drivers.

Wildlife-vehicle  collisions are a significant threat to human safety and the health of  wildlife and their connections to habitat in Montana and across the  country. And the numbers are striking. The Federal Highway  Administration reports more than 26,000 human injuries and over 200  human deaths occur from the one to two million large animal-vehicle  collisions around the country each year. Such collisions cost $8 billion  annually to taxpayers and does not include the value of our lost  wildlife.

Montana continues to rank second in the country for wildlife and vehicle collisions, with a likelihood of one in 48.

The  impacts of wildlife vehicle collisions and the safety of both the  public and animals are growing concerns for many of us in Montana,  including those who live, work and recreate within and adjacent to  Yellowstone National Park. Nearly half of the vehicle collisions along  US 89 between Gardiner and Livingston on the way to Yellowstone involve  wildlife.

Recognizing these  communities’ concerns, a little more than a year ago Gov. Bullock  convened the first Montana Wildlife and Transportation Summit. The  gathering brought together officials from Montana Department of  Transportation, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks along with local,  federal, and tribal governments, non-profit organizations, and  scientists to address wildlife-vehicle collisions in Montana. The summit  led to a commitment to work together to reduce this threat, and the  development of strategies to reduce animal-vehicle collisions and  protect wildlife and their movement across state highways.

Beyond  Montana, there is increasing momentum for innovative, community-driven  solutions to address the safety and wildlife concerns related to  collisions. Wyoming most recently secured a $14.5 million dollar grant  from the U.S. Department of Transportation for wildlife underpasses  along a critical mule deer corridor in the western part of the state.  And in Teton County, residents recently voted overwhelmingly to fund  wildlife crossings to the tune of $10 million through their first  Specific Purpose Excise Tax.

On  a national scale, members of Congress have also prioritized this issue,  with a Senate bill on surface transportation and infrastructure that  includes new funding for a pilot program to encourage innovative  solutions to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions. The funding would be  available to states, tribes, local governments, foundations, regional  transportation authorities, universities and many other eligible  entities. The legislation also requires 60% of the funding to support  projects in rural areas, such as the Paradise Valley and other Montana  communities. The bill passed the Senate Environment and Public Works  Committee, chaired by Wyoming’s Sen. Barrasso, unanimously. Now, the  House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is working on their  own bill, which will hopefully include similar wildlife-vehicle  collision funding.

As Montana  builds its vision and commitment to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions,  there is no better time for Montana’s Congressional delegation of Rep.  Gianforte and Sens. Daines and Tester to support the federal surface  transportation bill. Studies have shown up to an 80% or greater success  rate in reducing such conflicts when systems such as wildlife  underpasses and overpasses are used. Montanans are building a vision for  safer roadways for drivers and wildlife alike. The federal  transportation bill is a way forward to making this vision a reality.

Dan Bailey is the Yellowstone Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association