The terrible toll of wildlife-vehicle collisions - and what we can do about it

The terrible toll of wildlife-vehicle collisions – and what we can do about it

Pronghorn crossing a road.

Pronghorn crossing a road: Studies show wildlife overpasses and underpasses could reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions by 90%. (Tom Koerner/US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Most people might be surprised to learn that the combined distance of paved roads in the United States could encircle the Earth more than 160 times. While these roads and highways are essential infrastructure, there are significant downsides to all that asphalt and concrete, including collisions between wildlife and vehicles. These accidents result in some 200 deaths and 26,000 injuries each year, resulting in more than $8 billion in property damage, health care costs and lost workdays, according to the US Department of Transportation.

Collisions are, of course, a losing scenario for wildlife as well, and not just because of the immediate consequences they have on animal life. In Wyoming, for example, the mule deer population, which supports more than $300 million in annual hunting expenses in the state, has declined 40% since 2000, largely due to the fragmentation of habitat caused by roads and development. But there is good news: recent advances in science and policy have given us the tools to help solve this problem, starting with understanding how and where wildlife move.

The phenomenon of terrestrial wildlife migration – between higher, cooler summer habitats and lower elevations with more accessible winter food – is widespread among many species, especially large game such as elk, the pronghorn and the deer. Many of these seasonal routes date back thousands of years and in some cases are passed down from generation to generation. Migration, which can cover hundreds or even thousands of kilometers, is vital for the survival of these animals; it also not only benefits communities that depend on income from hunters and wildlife-viewing tourists, but also families that depend on big game for food.

Advances in research technology over the past decade have revolutionized experts’ understanding of how wildlife move across landscapes and are now helping to resolve wildlife-vehicle conflicts that are increasing due to the increased development. One example is GPS collars that are attached to big game, as well as other mammals and birds, and transmit electronic signals by satellite from some of the most remote areas of the United States to researchers across the country. This data captures exactly where and when animals move across vast landscapes, allowing scientists and engineers to determine where building wildlife crossings – primarily overpasses and underpasses that help animals cross highways – can most effectively improve the safety of motorists and facilitate the migration of animals. Studies show that a well-placed underpass or overpass can reduce wildlife vehicle accidents by more than 90%, providing a high rate of return on federal and state investments in such structures.

A wildlife overpass in Montana.

A wildlife overpass on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana.

(Montana Department of Transportation)

Additionally, by removing much of the guesswork about annual species movements, advances in migration science allow elected officials, land managers, and transportation and wildlife agencies to shape policy. In fact, many states have taken bipartisan action on wildlife habitat this year, with California, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming passing laws designed to reduce wildlife collisions. animals and vehicles by investing in transportation infrastructure such as overpasses and underpasses and other measures to improve habitat connectivity.

At the federal level, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 provides billions of dollars over five years for wildlife and water connectivity programs, as well as $350 million for a new crossing construction program for wildlife. It is now up to agencies like the Federal Highway Administration to effectively implement these programs so that tribes, states and other stakeholders can apply for these essential grants.

These victories should mark only the beginning of lasting solutions to retain America’s migration corridors. Federal agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior, are considering new ways to manage land that maintains critical ecological connections. In the face of climate change, maintaining these landscape connections is more important than ever, as it helps provide greater ecosystem resilience for species that migrate between habitats.

Opportunities are growing to integrate science and effective policy to better conserve migration corridors. It is important that leaders continue to work together to design more innovative technologies, bipartisan policies and funding mechanisms that reconnect wildlife habitats and, in doing so, benefit communities, local economies and wildlife health.

Matt Skroch oversees The Pew Charitable Trusts work on wildlife migration corridors and passages.

GoverningThe opinion columns of reflect the opinions of their authors and not necessarily those of Governingeditors or management.

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