From panthers to tortoises, ducklings to deer, the mangled carcasses that line the roads of America’s highways and byways are so routine a sight that many people probably assume these deaths are an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect of our transportation system, the price our society apparently has been willing to pay for the speedy movement of freight, commuters, and recreational travelers around the country.
But state and federal transportation departments have been tracking Wildlife Vehicle Collisions (WVCs) for a long time and know that there are multiple reasons for concern. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) reports that WVCs not only cost more than $8 billion annually, they account for over 25,000 human injuries and over 200 human deaths a year. These numbers make insurance companies sit up and pay attention, of course.
The wildlife fare even worse. In a major report to Congress back in 2008, the FHA estimated that over a million animals were hit and killed annually. Since then, sprawling development, habitat fragmentation, and the number of cars on the road have only continued to grow – there were over 290 million registered vehicles in the U.S. in 2022.
Result? According to State Farm Insurance, drivers in the U.S. have filed over 1.8 million animal collision insurance claims in the past year alone.So the laissez faire attitude toward wildlife mortality on America’s roads – and elsewhere – is shifting.
Thirty years ago, the Yellowstone to Yukon Project was established with the aim of connecting wild lands and waterways from the Greater Yellowstone Basin in the United States, up through the Canadian Rockies, and as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska. Re-engineering highway crossings to accommodate rather than block traditional migration routes was part of the solution – with overpasses such as the massive Animals’ Bridge on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, and the Trans-Canada Highway’s route through Yoho and Banff National Parks, which now incorporates seven overpasses and 41 large culverts and underpasses.
The success of that project served as a model when the Washington State Department of Transportation set about to widen 15 miles of that state’s major east-west transportation corridor, Interstate 90 in the interest of safety – but was quickly challenged by wildlife biologists, tribes and others to seize the opportunity to do much more than road-widening.
Unexpected partners came together from many different sectors to provide expertise, elbow grease and funding to restore lands, reconnect habitat, and ensure safe wildlife passage and connectivity, all while keeping the traffic moving.
What had once been a 150-foot bridge crossing a creek was rebuilt as a raised viaduct with an 1,100-foot span, which now allows passage not only for fish and amphibians, but plenty of room for large mammals, too, to come down through the expanded creek beds and forage in the restored wetlands.
Along another section of the freeway, car traffic now travels beneath a massive overpass planted with native shrubs and trees. Wildlife fences guide animals toward this bridge and away from the traffic, and wildlife cameras have caught images of deer, cougar, otters, and entire elk herds using this new crossing.
At present, this I-90 wildlife overpass is the largest anywhere in North America, although a new construction project in southern California is building an even larger wildlife crossing over Highway 101, due to be completed in 2025.
And more projects like these are in the works. At the end of September, the Oregon Department of Transportation announced plans for the first-ever wildlife crossing to span I-5, just north of the California border in the Siskiyou Mountains.
We’re likely to see these types of projects proliferating now, thanks to increasing public interest and funding from the Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program, a competitive grant that the Biden Administration pushed for and that Congress funded to the tune of $350 million in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The money will be awarded to construction projects that will improve the safety of roads for human beings, while also upgrading habitat connectivity and safe passage for finned, feathered, and four-legged creatures.
Photo Credits: courtesy of WSDOT
Barbara Lloyd McMichael is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.