New funding for wildlife highway crossings should help animals and drivers alike

Each spring, as has been the case for thousands of years, millions of animals in the American West—elk, antlers, and deer—make the journey from their winter lands to a cooler, more fertile summer habitat to fatten up before fall. Then, as the snow began to fall on the higher elevations, they retrace their steps to warmer elevations and less waiting for winter. These wildlife migrations can span hundreds of miles as animals travel through valleys and mountains over a period of weeks or even months. The paths they take, known as wildlife migration corridors, are passed down from generation to generation.

Mule deer walking along a long fence I-80 in Wyoming.  The highway bisects the winter flock.

A mule deer, seen between the two nearest trees in this photo, walks past a tall fence next to Interstate 80 in Wyoming. This stretch of highway has no wildlife crossings, although it divides the winter range for many residents.
Gregory Nickerson
University of Wyoming

But many of these old lanes are chipped or otherwise fragmented by highways and motorways. And that’s a loss for both motorists and wildlife: More than one million wildlife vehicle collisions occur each year in the United States, killing and injuring tens of thousands of people and countless animals, according to a report from the US Department of Transportation.

Historically, transportation officials had few tools to address this problem other than simply erecting signs alerting drivers to the potential for animals on the road, a strategy that did little to reduce the number or frequency of accidents.

But good news is on the way. The Infrastructure and Jobs Investment Act of 2021 — which Congress passed on November 5, and President Joe Biden signed into law on November 15 — provides for a Wildlife Crossings Safety Program that will fund strategic infrastructure much more than road signs. The law provides $350 million over five years for competitive grants to municipalities, states and tribes to build bridges, tunnels, canals, fences and other infrastructure that will allow the safe passage of wildlife both under and over roads. Such projects, which some states have begun implementing over the past few years, have been shown to reduce vehicle collisions between wildlife, reduce human casualties and deaths and improve the health of wildlife populations. Some of these structures reduced collisions by more than 80%.

In the American West, there are many road spaces in need of solutions. In western Colorado, the extension of US Highway 550 near Billy Creek Wildlife Area is notorious for its roadside destruction, and sometimes major accidents that kill or injure motorists. The same is true on part of US Highway 26/287 between Riverton and Dubois in Wyoming, and on US Highway 20 in eastern Oregon, where the Burns Payot Tribe is working on a solution.

CDOT staff and representatives of local conservation nonprofits are surveying potential sites for wildlife crossings and fencing improvements along 550 busy states.

Colorado Department of Transportation employees and representatives of local conservation nonprofits are surveying potential sites for wildlife crossings and fencing improvements along a crowded 550-meter stretch south of Montrose.
Colorado Department of Transportation

The first tranche of funding for this program – $60 million – will be distributed as competitive grants to projects due in the current fiscal year. Before the money gets out of the house, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) needs to develop grant program guidelines, including providing details on issues such as project eligibility and accountability measures. For example, how will grant applications be categorized in terms of their impact on reducing collisions or improving habitat connectivity? What is the expected life span of wildlife infrastructure? What are the expected maintenance needs? Will applicants benefit from using new technologies that save money and speed up construction? These and other questions need to be addressed by the DOT during the overall program implementation process.

The Pew Center looks forward to working with agency officials, wildlife and highway safety experts, and transportation and infrastructure specialists to achieve timely and effective implementation of the Wildlife Crossing program and to assist awarding applicants. The law has the potential to generate a huge return on investment by making roads safer, and making wildlife populations healthier, across the American West.

Matt Scruch is the project manager and Tom St. Helier is a senior officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ US Public Lands and Rivers Conservation Project.