For the first time there is money in the federal highway bill to pay for a pilot program to build wildlife-friendly crossings across the country. It’s part of the bipartisan America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019 that authorizes spending $287 billion dollars over five years, for the country’s roads, bridges, tunnels and bike and pedestrian paths.
The program would allow states, tribal governments and other entities to apply for a share of a quarter billion dollars to pay for their wildlife collision mitigation projects.
These mitigation projects do work, says Joy Bannon, field director for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.
"Solutions such as crossing structures, activated warning signs and animal detection systems can produce dramatic reductions in space based wildlife vehicle collisions," Bannon says.
The problem is paying for them, says Christy Plumer, chief conservation officer with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a non-profit conservation organization that has been lobbying Congress for months to include funding for wildlife crossings in the highway bill.
"Often these projects are not priorities by state departments of transportation without the existence of dedicated funding," Plumer says.
Even without targeted federal funding, Montana and Wyoming have built their own collision prevention efforts.
Montana has 110 places for wildlife as large as deer and bears, and as small as weasels and raccoons, to safely cross Montana roadways. This is done through undercrossings, overcrossings, fencing and animal detection systems.
Two Montana Transportation Department projects in construction right now will have wildlife accommodation features. The Toston Structures Project on US Highway 12 south of Townsend has wildlife exclusionary fencing to keep animals from getting trapped on the road and encourage them to go under bridges. It also has electric mats at the fence ends to give animals a mild electric shock to deter them from going around the fences and becoming trapped between the exclusionary fences.
The East of Thompson River Project on U.S. Highway 200 near Thompson Falls has a wildlife crossing, exclusionary fencing and electric mats. The target animal is bighorn sheep, but elk tracks have already been seen within the crossing. It is nearing completion this fall and is intended to improve safety for travelers and large-sized animals.
Wyoming’s 16 structures have reduced wildlife vehicle collisions by 80 to 90 percent in some locations, according to Wyoming Wildlife Federation’s Joy Bannon. The state has identified 40 more priority sites, with ten tapped for immediate attention.
Wyoming Department of Transportation says there are about 6,000 big game vehicle collisions in the Cowboy State every year. In Montana last year there were nearly 3,300 wildlife vehicle collisions, with 192 injuries and two fatalities.
The Senate version of the federal highway bill is far from a done deal. It still needs to be voted on by the full Senate with the wildlife pilot program intact. It will need to be reconciled with the House version of the highway bill that was still being written.
There’s also the money issue, says Steve Kline, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s director of government relations.
"They will have to find a way to pay for the bill since there wasn’t a gas tax increase included or any other revenue generators included," says Kline.
Kline says his organization will continue to lobby for its passage, stressing what the wildlife friendly crossings mean for public safety, not just for sportsmen and women but for everyone, including wildlife.
"Nobody wants to have a collision with an animal," Kline says.