Montana has a history of building wildlife crossings. Does it have a future?

Road ecologists say wildlife crossings are one of the best ways to reduce wildlife vehicle collisions and mitigate one of the most significant human impacts on ecosystems. This three-part series examines Montana’s approach to crossing initiatives as the federal government prepares to implement a $350 million pilot project — the largest investment of its kind in US history.


During November 17 hearingMartha Williams replied Dozens of questions you might expect from an incoming director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, from a congressional committee to consider her nomination. Having talked about a life ‘soaked in preservation’, Maryland Growing up and lessons I learned at the helm of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works questioned Williams about climate change, hunting in wildlife refuges and the Endangered Species Act administered by the USFWS.

Then committee chair Tom Carper, Delaware, presented her with an unexpected question: how Williams’ experience with Montana wildlife crossings prepared her to help implement $350 million federal pilot program Which aims to reduce vehicle collisions between wildlife and increase contact with habitats?

Williams described the program that is included in Congress passed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package on November 5, as a “big moment…a long time coming”. To add some kindness to the conversation, she described a video of a person sleeping in a wildlife tunnel at Flathead Preserve, oblivious to a grizzly bear wandering next to it. Then she returned to the intersection of transportation and wildlife conservation.

I cannot – we cannot – underestimate the importance of these crossings [motorist] “Safety and Wildlife,” she said. “Experience shows species use it, and it helps with safety.”

Williams was probably referring to the photos that circulated earlier this year semi-meeting In a well down US Highway 93. Three images, taken by a motion-sensitive toy camera at 1-second intervals, show a bear walking past a person lying next to a backpack, looking over their shoulder at the blanket-wrapped figure not 30 feet away, walking on .

Credit: Salish and Kootenay Confederate Tribes, Montana Department of Transportation, and Western Transportation Institute.

Like 38 other transit structures at Flathead Preserve, this stream was installed by the Montana Department of Transportation in the mid to late 2000s, a high point in the state’s efforts to make its transportation system more wildlife friendly. When the project was under way, environmental groups praised it for being responsive to the many ways roads disrupt wildlife when the project was underway. Movement, restricting animals’ access to food, companions, new lands, and safe havens from wildfires, floods, and droughts.

But Marcel Hoesser, a research ecologist at the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, says the state has become “completely stagnant” in the past decade, and Montana is rarely mentioned in recent stories about wildlife crossings. projects in NevadaAnd the WyomingAnd the Washington And the California Likely to make headlines. Now, a new $350 million has been allocated to the Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Bill – The largest investment of its kind in the country’s history It made ecologists like Huijser wonder if the state would renew its efforts to help wildlife cross Montana’s roads safely.

Once he becomes a leader, now he’s late

Montana’s roads currently contain 122 wildlife places — measures designed to mitigate the impacts of roads and traffic on wildlife — according to the MDT Office of Environmental Services Chief Tom Martin. Most are underpass tunnels, he said, but others include exclusion fences to deter wildlife from crossing a certain stretch of road and remove vegetation to make wildlife more visible to motorists.

attributed to him: Confederate Tribes Salish and Kootenay, Montana Department of Transportation, and the Western Transportation Institute.

There are eighty-one of the 122 wildlife residences in the state It is located on US Highway 93And the that crosses western Montana from Eureka to Sola. About half of the Highway 93 projects are located in the Flathead Reservation, in large part because of the Salish and Kootenay Confederate tribes insisting on it. Back in the 1990s, tribal leaders told the MDT that they would not grant the required easements for the highway expansion project unless the MDT reduced the road’s impact on wildlife. With the help of mediation from the Federal Highway Administration the two sides reached an agreement in 2000 It is built on the idea that “a path is a visitor and … must respond and respect the earth and the spirit of the place”. Researchers assessed potential crossing sites based on the wildlife crash rate, local knowledge of wildlife movements and land availability for crossing structures, and MDT began installing 39 structures (mostly under tunnels) in 2005. The total cost of the crossings exceeded $21 million, which was funded Primarily in FHA dollars earmarked for MDT. A decade later, half a dozen studies have been conducted on its effectiveness.

one study Based on 15 tunnels, it was found that 24 animal species used the crossings during the study period. Huijser and colleagues found that they were most likely used by deer, followed by black bears and wolves, but other animals including bobcats, throat-necked pheasants, and raccoons also used them. Another study by Huijser found that more efficient crossings on Highway 93 reduced motor vehicle accidents with wildlife by nearly 100%, and less efficient crossings (those that lack an optimal setting, design and fencing to encourage animals to use them) improved wild vehicle accidents. By about 50%.

attributed to him: Confederate Tribes Salish and Kootenay, Montana Department of Transportation, and the Western Transportation Institute.

Interstate 93 is an exception. Elsewhere, Montana has generally taken a more focused approach to transportation to mitigate the impacts of the roads on wildlife, which isn’t much of a problem for animals — or motorists facing costly vehicle repairs. Martin said the current MDT process looks something like this: The MDT identifies a section of the road that needs improvement, whether that means repaving or widening it or replacing a bridge or protection barrier, and working biologists are assessing the project’s potential to negatively impact wildlife. The department then applies a cost-benefit analysis to a range of potential mitigation measures. Some are implemented and some are not.

The most effective measures, from a collision prevention and habitat connection perspective, too Tend to carry higher price tagswhich helps explain why so little has been built in the state in the past decade. Martin says that building a bridge over a highway strong enough to accommodate soil and vegetation that encourages animals to use is a difficult proposition. The cost of the excesses ranged between $1 million and $7 million, and the expenditures ranged from $250,000 to $600,000. To do well, researchers learn, Structures often require 8-foot fences up to 3 miles long To guide wildlife to crossings, these fences come at a price, too—about $50,000 per mile.

Martin said MDT’s ability to establish wildlife crossings in the past decade has been limited by the government’s funding model. The vast majority of Montana’s highway improvement dollars come from federal treasuries, Martin said, with the rest, about 13%, coming from the state’s gasoline tax. As a result, the MDT’s strategy has been to prioritize projects that closely align with federal funding opportunities, and that tend to prioritize public safety concerns over wildlife. Land vehicle accidents in Montana may be frequent — Montana ranks second after West Virginia for the probability of a driver hitting an animal, according to a report. Data collected by the insurance company State Farm – but it’s rarely fatal, for people anyway.

“The harsher the safety [concern]Martin said. “They take precedence.”

What impresses road ecologists like Rob Ament, Huijser’s fellow at the Western Transportation Institute, are so excited about the new allocation of wildlife crossings in the Congressional Infrastructure Package is the fact that applicants such as cities, counties, states, and tribes You won’t have to compete for financing with bridges that need to be replaced or highways that need to be repaved.

“That’s why I think the new bill is a turning point [moment]Safe said.

attributed to him: Confederate Tribes Salish and Kootenay, Montana Department of Transportation, and the Western Transportation Institute.

Aside from public safety, Huijser says, there are many economic and non-economic reasons to invest in wildlife crossings. Although transit structures are expensive, Ament said the investment begins when transit planners take into account the costs associated with accidents in high-impact areas. (Between towing and repairing vehicles, medical costs, moving a carcass and the estimated value of an animal alive, an average deer crash costs more than $6,700, and larger animals drive up costs, according to the 2008 report to Congress.)

From a biological perspective, Huijser co-authored Highway Crossing Structures 93 He describes the methods as “one of the biggest direct impacts humans have on ecosystems.” Roads and associated rights of way degrade potential wildlife habitats, disturb soils and hydrology, invite colonization of invasive species and can contribute to inbreeding, with negative consequences for the genetic health of species. Crossings can’t mitigate all of these effects, but Huijser says it’s one of the best tools transportation planners have, and he’d like to see Montana do more.

“With a few exceptions—but very old—Montana has been quite stagnant” on the wildlife crossing front, he said. “Given the size of our state and the natural resources we have, I’ve been expecting us to do more over the past decade.”

The second part of this series will focus on a neighboring country that has proven to be a leader in wildlife crossing initiatives.

Read Part Two

Wildlife Crossings, Wyoming Road

Over the past 17 years, Wyoming’s efforts to create wildlife crossings have earned three Model Ecosystem Initiative awards from the Federal Highway Administration. Data, cooperation, and political will have been essential to Wyoming’s success.

Read Part 3

road passes through

Highway 191 between Bozeman and Big Sky is one of the busiest roads in Montana and one of the deadliest for wildlife. The solutions are long overdue.

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