BOZEMAN, Mont. — In the Intermountain West, crashes between motor vehicles and wildlife are a threat to humans and animal safety costing hundreds of lives and more than $8 billion annually.
Between July 2011 and June 2012 it was estimated that there were more than a 1 million deer vehicle collisions in the U.S and damaged caused by these accident are not covered under the collision portion of an automobile insurance policy.
According to the Insurance Information Institute more roads are being constructed through wildlife habitat displacing deer in these areas leading to an increase in deer vehicle collisions.
Rob Ament is the ecology program manager for the Western Transportation Institute (WTI) at Montana State University in Bozeman. He said studies show that wildlife-vehicle collisions have doubled in the past fifteen years and transportation agencies are looking to identify major corridors with increasing levels of wildlife movement, and then engineer solutions to prevent those kinds of accidents.
One solution involves wildlife crossings that connect habitats divided by highways thereby allowing animals to cross over or under roads safely. These crossings involve site-specific engineering and the construction of underpasses and overpasses for large or herd-type animals such as moose, elk and deer and tunnels for small mammals such as otters, skunks and badgers. There are even tunnels for amphibians and other little critters.
Some aquatic crossings allow for fish migration and may be used by smaller non-aquatic species.
Ament says the reasons for the collisions can vary from having high-quality habitat at the road’s edge to animals moving from winter to summer ranges with many other variables such as winding roads with poor visibility.
Other factors such as terrain and traffic determine the type of crossing needed for specific species, Ament says.
Gregg Servheen is the wildlife programs coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish & Game. He said that new road development or improvements will address wildlife and public safety with engineered strategies for underpasses and overpasses. “Underpasses are probably the most common way of dealing with wildlife connectivity,” Servheen says. “It’s not only important to protect animals but it is also a public safety issue.”
Several wildlife mitigation programs across the West are addressing these issues.
The People’s Way, Montana
In northwestern Montana, The People’s Way is a 56.3-mile section of US-93 between Evaro and Polson south of Flathead Lake, with all but one mile on the Flathead Indian Reservation. This stretch of roadway represents the most extensive wildlife-sensitive highway design effort in North America to date Many uncommon native species occur within the project area, including grizzly bears and gray wolves, as well as more common species such as black bear, white-tailed and mule deer, bobcat, coyote, mountain lion, elk and many smaller species including the western painted turtle.
| The Montana Department of Transportation has built 42 fish and wildlife crossing structures and nearly 17 miles of wildlife fencing.
These mitigation measures will improve safety for motorists by reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions. Fewer accidents means fewer insurance claims on individual auto policies.
They will also function to maintain habitat connectivity and protect animal populations by providing safe passage through specially engineered overpasses and underpasses.
Great Western Engineering (GWE) of Helena designed the seven-mile long and southern most section of The People’s Way from Evaro to McClure Road. Their section was the most expensive, approximately $29 million, and includes a one and a half mile extension of a four-lane undivided roadway, a two-lane roadway with turn and alternating passing lanes for north and southbound traffic. The firm also engineered the relocation of one mile of Montana Rail Link line including a new railroad bridge in Evaro, three-and-a-half miles of wildlife fencing and ten wildlife crossing structures including an overcrossing designed for, but not limited to, grizzly bears.
Dan McCauley is president of GWE and he said a lot of biological study was involved before they started the design phase. “We coordinated with the tribes and various federal and state agencies to engineer the proper structures along with road engineering. After years of study it was determined that the overcrossing at the top of Evaro Hill is located in the best grizzly bear habitat on the entire stretch of US 93,” he says.
Of the 10 GWE designed undercrossings six are essentially big bottomless, oversized culverts over streams that include a path along the side where animals from mountain lions to turtles can get safe passage.
On the 56 miles of The People’s Way, more than 16 total miles of 8-foot high wildlife fencing on both side of the road keep the animals off the road and steer them into the passageways. End of Part 1