The Appalachian Voice: Critter corridors aspire to provide Safe Passage for roaming mountain wildlife

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 bears by roadBears stand by a roadside guardrail.  Bridget Donaldson, Virginia Transportation Research Council

Safe Passage initiative calls for wildlife and human protections along mountain highways

Hellbender Press is proud to republish this story as part of our partnership with Boone-based The Appalachian Voice.
 

Jean Loveday is driving her husband, Tom, home from a doctor’s appointment in Johnson City, Tennessee. Their Toyota pickup truck is winding along Interstate 26, not far from the North Carolina state line north of Asheville.

Suddenly Loveday sees something black tumbling down the mountain and out into the highway in her peripheral view. “Oh no, Tom, oh no!” she mumbles. Loveday realizes it’s a bear cub hurtling toward them. She attempts to avoid hitting it by steering into the median, but vehicle and animal seem destined to collide.

“It all happened so fast,” she says today. “I don’t know where its mother was, whether the cub was following her or on its own. We stopped. It moved for a few minutes, and then was still. All I could think for days was, ‘I killed a bear cub!’ I hope I never, ever have to go through that again.”

Loveday is overwhelmed with emotion as she relates this sad memory, one shared by many motorists in the Southern Appalachians.

“I don’t care where you are on the political spectrum, no one wants to hit an animal with their vehicle,” says Jeff Hunter, senior program manager for National Parks Conservation Association, an organization devoted to protecting and enhancing the national parks system for future generations.

In early 2017, Hunter convened a group of people who were concerned about the rising numbers of bear, deer and elk being hit on another highway that straddles the Tennessee–North Carolina border—Interstate 40 near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some years have seen as many as 70 road-killed bears in this curvy 28-mile section of road alone, and elk reintroduced to the park in 2001 are now crossing the highway to expand their range. 

“Human infrastructure is making it increasingly difficult for wildlife to follow their natural patterns of movement across the landscape,” says Hugh Irwin, a landscape conservation planner with The Wilderness Society who raised concerns back in the 1990s about I-40 being a barrier to wildlife movement. “Historically too little thought and planning has gone into wildlife needs, and our current infrastructure fails to provide for wildlife passage.”

Passionate discussions led to action, and soon more than 80 individuals from nearly 20 federal, state, Tribal, and non-governmental organizations were collaborating to make this section of roadway more permeable for wildlife and safer for people. 

Roadkill’s “Pernicious Twin”

The intersection of roads and wildlife is a safety issue that is not unique to North Carolina and Tennessee. According to the Federal Highway Administration, an estimated two million large mammals are killed on roads in the United States each year, resulting in more than 26,000 human injuries and at least 200 human fatalities.

For years, road ecologists around the world have been working to mitigate highways that were originally designed without consideration for wildlife. Europe, Canada, Mexico, and many U.S. states have already created effective wildlife road crossings. Recent articles and videos featuring large wildlife overpasses in Utah and Texas have been shared widely on social media.

Senior Research Ecologist Marcel Huijser (pronounced ‘Houser’) with the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University in Bozeman has contributed to road ecology studies for more than two decades. He cites three main reasons why people care about this issue: the desire for wildlife conservation, concern for human safety, and economics. “No matter who you are, where you live, or what you do for a living, you’re going to care about at least one of these,” he says.

On November 26, 2019, The Atlantic ran an auspicious road ecology article by Ben Goldfarb titled “How Roadkill Became an Environmental Disaster.” Focusing on the giant anteaters of Brazil, whose range is—you guessed it—bisected by a huge highway, the epic, riveting story introduces readers to Evelyn the anteater and a cast of road-weary researchers. One particular Goldfarb quote became the motto for researchers assessing wildlife movement and mortality in the Pigeon River Gorge: “Collisions may be road ecology’s most obvious concern, but fragmentation is roadkill’s pernicious twin.”

Conservationists point out the gravity of individual animals being killed on roads. But when they no longer try to cross, it can signal an even more dire situation.

“When wildlife finally stops even trying to cross, the highway has become a barrier,” says Hunter. “The ‘barrier effect’ is not to be confused with the concrete Jersey barriers that prevent many individual crossings. When a whole population stops crossing the road, that means their habitat is now fragmented, preventing the healthy genetic exchange that species need to thrive.”

Ron Sutherland works to restore, reconnect and re-establish wildlife corridors that have been fragmented throughout the eastern United States in his role as chief scientist with Wildlands Network, the organization that kicked off discussions about mitigation to I-40 in 2015. He defines habitat connectivity as the degree to which organisms are able to move freely across the landscape.

“Habitat connectivity can be very high, such as in a remote and intact wilderness,” he says, “or it can be very low, such as in a city park surrounded on all sides by busy highways.”

Sutherland points out that people often get wildlife corridors and wildlife road crossings confused.

“A wildlife corridor is the term we use for a defined movement pathway that, if protected or restored, would provide essential habitat connectivity for one or more species,” he says. “They can be easy to see—such as a vegetated trail alongside a roadway—or nearly invisible and defined only by the movements of the animals.”

A wildlife road crossing, on the other hand, is “a structure that is designed to allow wildlife to safely cross over or under a busy road,” he says. “So, of course it follows that one of the best places to put wildlife road crossings is where you have a wildlife corridor that gets cut off by a highway.”

Read the rest of the story at The Appalachian Voice. 

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