To prevent dangerous traffic accidents and protect animals, Congress included hundreds of millions of dollars in the bipartisan Infrastructure Act for projects to help wildlife cross highways safely. The Federal Highway Administration plans to issue a funding opportunity notice in early 2023 for the pilot program. But in the meantime, there are steps states and local authorities can take to improve their chances of winning the new grant dollars, an expert said. Road Fifty.
Oh deer, that’s a big deal
Every year on American roads, hundreds of thousands of animals are hit by cars. Insurer State Farm estimated earlier this year that drivers nationwide impacted more than two million animals between July 2020 and June 2021. Between the 1970s and 2020, vehicle-animal collisions resulted in between 80 and 220 human deaths per year, according to statistics compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute. Wrecks also result in billions of dollars in property damage and other expenses.
Animal deaths, meanwhile, are often underreported because people don’t always report when they’ve run over a small mammal or amphibian, notes Anna Wearn, director of government affairs for the Center for Large Landscape Conservation.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $350 million to help improve options for animals to cross busy roads. The money will be spread over five years. This is the first time that projects aimed at reducing wildlife collisions and stitching together road-cut habitats will have their own funding, according to Wearn. This is an important development, as wildlife crossing projects typically compete with other infrastructure priorities for money.
Under the new program, the Federal Highway Administration will seek projects that most effectively reduce motorist-wildlife collisions and provide better “habitat connectivity,” according to an agency spokesperson.
Although the grant application process is not yet open, there is still a lot of work to be done so that state and local agencies can get a head start if they are interested in funding.
Having data on collision rates in a particular area will, of course, help make the case for a wildlife crossing.
To determine if a community would benefit, people will naturally look to roads where there are a high number of collisions. But there are other factors to consider.
Sometimes even a low number of collisions indicates an equally high need for a crossing. That’s because busy roads can have a “‘barrier effect,’ as animals recognize when it’s too dangerous to even attempt to cross, Wearn explained in a recent interview. When animals are unable to migrate to new areas, this can lead to inbreeding, difficulty finding food, and other problems.
Beyond assessing the need for a crossing, managers must also consider the practicality of the site they are considering. It is essential to ensure that there is wildlife habitat on either side of a proposed crossing. Understanding who owns the land, what their plans are, and how the landscape might change due to climate change are also important considerations.
Data on collisions, migration patterns, and land use will not only inform decisions about the need for crossing, but also what type of crossing is most appropriate.
Talking about the projects often conjures up images of towering viaducts carpeted in greenery. But not all projects are this glamorous or on this scale, Wearn said. Sometimes increasing the size of culverts or installing directional fencing is enough to make a big difference.
Across the country, there are wildlife safe passage coalitions that often include entities such as transportation and wildlife agencies, as well as departments of natural resources, nonprofits, and universities.
“If these partnerships already exist, they probably have a lot of important data, they’ve probably started to come up with a process for identifying and prioritizing wildlife crossings, projects, or types of general mitigation measures,” Wearn said.
These partnerships also contribute to community engagement and outreach, which will be part of the criteria for the pilot program, according to Wearn. While residents are often excited about wildlife crossings, local officials should be aware of concerns, such as whether a project could lead to more animals entering private property.
If a state or local government is struggling to find a coalition to work with, there’s no better time than the present to build new relationships by hosting a wildlife and transportation summit or encouraging agencies of state to partner in initiatives, Wearn said.
While the funding itself is important, the wildlife crossing program has additional political and cultural significance, Wearn said. That’s because it’s an issue that involves security, conservation and economic concerns, and typically garners broad support across the political spectrum, from conservative hunters to liberal rights activists. animals.
Since the infrastructure law was passed late last year, at least seven states – California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming – have passed wildlife crossing legislation to set funds aside for matching grants, according to Wearn.
In Agoura Hills, California, construction of what has been described as the world’s largest wildlife corridor has recently begun. The $100 million project, which will include a bridge spanning 10 lanes of Highway 101, was largely funded through public-private partnerships.
“It’s really exciting to work on an issue, in a time of a lot of partisanship, political division and stalemate, that is so widely supported,” Wearn said.
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