Reposted from Deseret News, written by Amy Joi O’Donoghue
Wildlife vehicle collisions in 11 Western states cost $1.6 billion a year and in Utah the costs are staggering as well: $250 million.
And those crashes between animals and machines cause hundreds of human fatalities and tens of thousands of injuries each year in the United States, while killing more than 1 million large mammals.
A recent study looked at hot spots, or ideal locations for investments in overpass or underpass structures, as well as fencing, to help alleviate the problem.
The study is one of the first of its kind to embrace an approach integrating ecological, economic and safety considerations to identify the sections of highway across the West that are best served by future wildlife crossings.
“This study is unique,” said Kylie Paul, road ecologist at the Center for Large Landscape Conservation and co-author of the study.
“Rather than primarily focusing on wildlife vehicle collision locations, we used several factors to highlight locations where building a wildlife crossing structure might address conservation needs and cost-savings, in addition to the standard focus on human safety. Additionally, we looked across the West and at states individually to help provide a regional context,” she said.
The study was the result of work by the nonprofit conservation organization as well as Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute and David Theobald with Conservation Planning Technologies.
According to the research, there were 23,600 wildlife vehicle collisions in Utah between 2011 and 2020.
Paul said she suspects there are many more than that because not all are reported. In some states they arrived at numbers showing twice the collision count and even in one drastic instance found where the numbers were as high as nine times the logged amount.
The study highlights road segments in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Co-author Matthew Bell, research engineer at the Western Transportation Institute, said the study used updated collision and wildlife crossing structure economic cost values to highlight locations where the cost of building a crossing structure is less expensive than the cost of letting wildlife-vehicle collisions continue.
“We showed that in several hundred locations across the West, constructing a crossing structure and fencing would actually be cheaper over the long term than doing nothing, while also enhancing wildlife conservation efforts,” he said.
In 2018, Utah completed construction of a $5 million wildlife overpass on I-80 in busy Parleys Canyon. Animals were being killed at record rates. Close to two dozen different wildlife species have been documented crossing the bridge, with videos going viral. Transportation officials said the overpass was specifically placed in a location along migratory pathways that intersect with the six-lane interstate.
In Utah, researchers looked at 50,323 segments of roadways that totaled 9,050 total miles in length.
It revealed certain hotspots, such as U.S. 40 in the vicinity of Strawberry Reservoir and Daniels Summit in Wasatch Canyon, as places that could benefit from a crossing, as well as in the Vernal area in eastern Utah.Report ad
Additionally, southern Utah in the vicinity of Zion National Park is a region that could benefit, the study revealed.
At the conservation center’s website, people can access an interactive map with state-specific details, read the full report or download a two-page brief on the issue.
Paul emphasized, too, that the West-wide look at vehicle wildlife collisions is not meant to supplant states’ successes in the past or question ongoing efforts, but rather augment them.
Utah, in fact, has been at the forefront of instituting wildlife crossings, becoming the first in the nation to do so with an overpass installed in 1975 on I-15 near Beaver.
In 2011, the state received a national award for its work on improvements to U.S. 6 — that stretch of road from Spanish Fork to Price. In addition to widening the deadly stretch of freeway, work included multiple wildlife crossings to try to reduce wildlife vehicle collisions.
The study comes at a time of increased interest, momentum and policies that are ticking up for building wildlife crossings and implementing other mitigation measures in the United States, including $350 million in federal funding from the Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Motivated by the federal funding, the Utah Legislature kicked in $20 million this last session to leverage that money for grants in a 4-to-1 match — meaning that for every dollar the state puts up, it gets four in return. So that $20 million could be transformed into $100 million.
Matt Howard, natural resources manager for the Utah Department of Transportation, said details about several priority projects have been submitted for the first round of available money. They include:
- Echo Junction at I-84 and 1-80. Howard said there have been a lot of collisions in that area and the highways serve as migration barriers for deer and pronghorn. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has collared many of the animals with technology that sends out a signal every two hours, so authorities have solid information on where and when the animals are moving. Work anticipates nine miles of fencing, multiple crossings, retrofitting bridges across the Weber River and additional underpasses for wildlife.
- U.S. 40 between Strawberry and Duchesne.
- U.S. 89 in southern Utah.
“It is a big job ahead but it looks like it is trending in the right direction as far as the government and the public are concerned,” Howard said. “It is something we are very excited about.”
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