Western States Seek Safe Passage for Wildlife


Just north of Pindedale, Wyoming, a 12-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 191 embodies the well-known, 1800s western folk song refrain, “Give me a home, where the buffalo roam, and the deer and the antelope play.” U.S. 191’s quintessential western American landscape showcases wildlife habitat, the Wind River Range’s majestic peaks in the east and rolling sagelands stretching west to the distant Wyoming Range.

Over the last few decades, however, instead of playing, the deer and the antelope were struck by vehicles and died on the roadside in alarming numbers. More and faster cars, expand- ed energy development and trucking pointed to an increasingly bleak outcome for wildlife.

On this and the more than four million miles of American roads, wildlife-vehicle collisions have been on the rise for decades. Estimates by the Federal Highway Administration in 2008 put large wildlife collisions alone at 1-2 million nationally based on road maintenance reports, but wildlife biologists believe actual numbers are significantly higher—up to four times higher (including elk, bears, cougars and deer). The financial repercussions are upwards of $8 billion, according to the FHWA.

In Wyoming, vehicles kill a conservative estimate of 6,000 big game animals annually, 85 percent of which are mule deer. The total economic value of known lost animals is about $23 million, with $29 million in personal injury and costs to humans, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Department numbers.

Despite these grim statistics, there are new bright spots for animal and driver safety. On that stretch of Wyoming road, for example, animal fatalities are all but gone, thanks to dedicated game biologists, engineers and a huge financial investment by the state of Wyoming to build the Trapper’s Point wildlife crossing project, finished in 2012. Now, close to 100 percent of antelope cross safely using one of two,150-foot wide bridges. Mule deer and other animals also use these bridges, or one of six underpasses in the same stretch.

At a cost of $10 million, the state estimates Trapper’s Point will pay for itself in both wildlife and vehicle damage by the year 2022. It’s also inspiring for both local residents and visitors as a great example of coexistence with wildlife.

“One of the big motivators has been the science and data we’ve been collecting, [more accurate locations] of individual animals makes it real, and with social media, wildlife managers can share it with the public in a way they understand,” said Jill Randall, the statewide migration coordinator for Wyoming Game and Fish. “This has resulted in a lot more public support for spending the money on crossings.”

It may seem like it’s taken ages for this simple solution to be executed. But the amount of research that goes into a crossing is staggering, including where exactly to put them and how to design them for various species that may balk at one design but use another. Much of that has been precise data and better GPS technology from collared animals over the last decade, and it points to a better future for them.

“The state DOTs are realizing we can engineer a solution, and the public is paying more attention now. They are more connected because of videos and imagery about how these animals navigate barriers.”

For Wyoming, advanced GPS tracking collars on animals clarified the importance of Trapper’s Point: U.S. 191 impeded a critical migration route bottle- neck for thousands of migrating pronghorn traveling 125 miles twice a year between summer range near Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, and winter range on the high deserts of southern Wyoming. As the first federally designated migration corridor, it’s also the longest remaining migration in the west for pronghorn: fawns have learned the path from their mothers for at least 6,800 years, according to the Wyoming Migration Initiative, a research project from the University of Wyoming. Thousands more mule deer using similar corridors migrate farther, 150-200 miles—each way—to the Red Desert.

Trapper’s Point may be a dramatic example, but each crossing has its own story. In the early 2000s, game managers for the iconic but struggling Wyoming Range mule deer herd lobbied for underpasses in western Wyoming’s Nugget Canyon. Here, U.S. Highway 30 cut across winter range and migration corridors for upwards of 10,000 mule deer. More than 500 animals died on the same 13 miles of road every winter, and hundreds more likely made it away from the road before dying, thus uncounted, according to Jeff Short, a wildlife biologist for southwest Wyoming. The underpasses and fencing reduced deer mortality to about 30 or fewer individuals each winter, mostly due to temporary fencing failures.

With such clear successes, an increasing number of large- and small-scale projects are finally being funded and built to retrofit roads and landscapes to work better for drivers and for wildlife. With each successful project, public support swells. From Nevada to Washington state, California to Utah, these projects share the unusual combination of being both utilitarian and heartwarming.

In Montana, wildlife researchers and the state Department of Transportation created a success story on Highway 93. From Hamilton to Lolo, and Evaro up to Polson, 76 total miles of road were rebuilt with 81 crossings including bridges, tunnels and fish culverts to restore habitat connectivity between 2001 and 2015.

The driving public has been positively impacted, and for one driver in northern Montana, the more crossings the better. “When you drive Highway 93 north of Whitefish, there are no crossings and many dead animals. I’ve even hit a deer, I felt horrible at the waste of life,” said Sarah Light, a Whitefish resident who commuted to Missoula once a week on 93 for school. “But driving south, it’s remarkable, I love seeing the bridges and it’s heartwarming to know the animals are safer too.”

“It’s really linear. We have the technology and it works,” said Chris Colligan, wildlife program coordinator for the Bozeman, Montana-based conservation group Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “We can solve this issue; the state DOTs are realizing we can engineer a solution, and the public is paying more attention now. They are more connected because of videos and imagery about how these animals navigate barriers.”

Public support also eases the financial burden on state agencies, making more projects happen faster. In 2019, Teton County, Wyoming residents were in an uproar over local wildlife, such as deer and moose, getting hit by increasing commuter and tourism traffic. While a priority for the local community, WYDOT focused on roads with vastly worse out- comes for wildlife struggling to maintain migration corridors and winter range. So Teton County voters approved a local, $10 million special purpose excise tax on top of sales tax to raise money for the local crossings and expedite a solution.

In Wyoming, vehicles kill a conservative estimate of 6,000 big game animals annually. Total economic value of known lost animals is about $23 million with $29 million in personal injury and costs to humans.

In Colorado, a stretch of State Highway 9 between popular recreation spots in Summit and Routt counties bisected critical winter range for mule deer and other animals. Wildlife mortality was significant: 63 large animals died on average per winter on an 11-mile stretch. In 2013, a public-private collaborative fundraising effort began, resulting in two overpasses and five underpasses by the end of 2016. Today, 96 percent of wintering mule deer trying to cross the road successfully navigate the passages, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).

“It was a huge partnership project,” said ECO-Resolutions’ Julia Kintsch, the monitoring research leader on the effort. CPW worked closely with CDOT on the design. Money from the state, Grand and Summit Counties, nearby municipalities, and millions from Blue Valley Ranch, a private landowner along the stretch funded the crossings. Kintsch notes that departments of transportation are realizing they can’t, and don’t, have to operate in isolation and instead can partner with other groups and nonprofits interested in the impact of roads.

“Each agency used to have their own mission, but now there is collaboration to make things work for wildlife and drivers,” Kintsch said. “Wildlife is an important part of what communities value, and how we interact with the landscape. Overpasses are really visible to drivers [who] get really excited. The crossings generate a lot of interest and awareness that mitigation is feasible.”

The action is not just in the West, or merely for big game either. Florida is building crossings for bears, panthers and other animals. As long ago as 1987, tunnels were built in Massachusetts to help tiny salamanders travel under roads and safely access their breeding ponds, and turtle underpasses exist across the nation.

On the other hand, the largest wildlife crossing in the world to date is underway in Los Angeles as a passage for cougars, deer, coyotes and small game to reconnect an ecosystem long cut off by the 10-lane 101 freeway. In late 2019, the project was in its final design stage, and about 80 percent of the $87 million price tag came from private donations, while the rest will be public money earmarked for conservation. It is set to open in 2023.

These successes and wide support are trickling upward. Last year, a bill introduced to the Senate by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, called America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019 (S.2302), authorizes the fed to invest $287 billion in roads and bridges over the next five years and allocates $250 million of that into a pilot program for wildlife crossings.

“We’re never going to get back to animal populations of the 1950s,” say Wyoming’s Randall. “We’re just trying our darndest to hang onto what we have [and] protect their migration corridors as well as the summer and winter ranges. This is a really good, linear problem and opportunity to have a positive impact.”

Brigid Mander is a writer based in Jackson, Wyoming, but hails from the New York metro area and is grateful for the animals of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. She can be spotted on the road driving under the speed limit and looking out for mule deer.