A significant road ecologist states Montana is ‘stagnant’ top top wildlife cross initiatives. Can a $350 million federal pilot regime turn that around?
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byAmanda Eggert 01.04.202201.04.2022
A black bear increase from a wildlife underpass installed on the Flathead Reservation, among 39 structures installed in the so late 2000s once the Montana room of transport widened U.S. Highway 93, one of the busiest highways in the state. Credit: Confederated Salish and also Kootenai Tribes, Montana room of Transportation, and also the Western transport Institute.

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Road ecologists say wildlife crossings are one of the ideal ways to minimize wildlife-vehicles collisions and mitigate among the most far-ranging human results on ecosystems. This three-part series examines Montana’s method to crossing campaigns as the federal federal government prepares to implement a $350 million pilot job — the largest investment the its kind in U.S. History.

During a Nov. 17 hearing, Martha Williams answered dozens of inquiries you’d intend an incoming manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife company to ar from the congressional committee considering she nomination. After she spoke about a life “steeped in conservation,” the Maryland farm she prospered up on and also lessons she learned at the helm that Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and also Parks Department, members that the Senate Environment and also Public works Committee grilled Williams around climate change, hunting on wildlife refuges and the USFWS-administered Endangered species Act.

Then committee chair Tom Carper, D-Delaware, gift her v an unexpected question: How had actually Williams’ endure with wildlife crossings in Montana all set her to assist implement a $350 million commonwealth pilot program that intends to minimize wildlife-vehicle collisions and increase habitat connectivity?

Williams explained the program, i m sorry was consisted of in the $1.2 trillion facilities package conference passed Nov. 5, together “a huge moment … a long time coming.” including some levity to the conversation, she defined a video of a human being sleeping in a wildlife underpass top top the Flathead Reservation, oblivious to a grizzly be affected by each other sauntering by. Then she circled back to the intersection that transportation and also wildlife conservation. 

“I can not — us can’t — underestimate the prestige of this crossings because that safety, and for wildlife,” she said. “Experience mirrors that species use them, and they assist with safety.”

Williams was likely referencing photos the circulated previously this year the a near-encounter in a culvert beneath U.S. Highway 93. 3 photos, snapped by a motion-sensitive game camera at one-second intervals, present a be affected by each other walking past a person lying next to a backpack, looking over its shoulder at the blanket-wrapped type not 30 feet away, and also ambling on.

Credit: Confederated Salish and also Kootenai Tribes, Montana room of Transportation, and also the Western transport Institute.What rather you should know:

Like 38 various other crossing structures on the Flathead Reservation, the culvert was installed by the Montana department of transport in the mid-to-late 2000s, a high suggest in the state’s efforts to make its transport system an ext wildlife-friendly. As soon as the job was underway, Montana and the Confederated Salish and also Kootenai people — which had insisted the MDT mitigate wildlife effects on tribal land as part of a highway-widening project — to be lauded by environmental groups for being responsive to the many ways roads impede wildlife movement, restricting animals’ accessibility to food, mates, new territory, and safe harbor from wildfire, flooding and drought.

But Marcel Huijser, a research ecologist through Montana State University’s Western transportation Institute, states the state has come to be “quite stagnant” in the past decade, and Montana is rarely stated in recent stories around wildlife crossings. Tasks in Nevada, Wyoming, Washington and California are an ext likely to do headlines. Now, the framework bill’s brand-new $350 million wildlife crossings assignment — the largest investment that its kind in the country’s background — has ecologists like Huijser wonder if the state will renew its efforts to help wildlife safely overcome Montana’s roadways.

ONCE A LEADER, currently A LAGGER

Montana roads right now contain 122 wildlife accommodations — actions designed to mitigate the effects of roadways and traffic top top wildlife — follow to MDT eco-friendly Services office Chief Tom Martin. He said most of those are underpasses, but others incorporate exclusionary fences come deter wildlife from crossing a certain stretch of road and vegetation removed to make wildlife more visible come motorists.

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Credit: Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Montana room of Transportation, and also the Western transportation Institute.

Eighty-one the the state’s 122 wildlife accommodations are located on U.S. Highway 93, which traverses western Montana native Eureka to Sula. About fifty percent of the Highway 93 tasks are located on the Flathead Reservation, early in no small part to the Confederated Salish and also Kootenai Tribes’ insistence ~ above them. Back in the 1990s, tribal leaders told MDT they wouldn’t provide easements forced for the highway-widening project unless MDT lessened the roadway’s impact on wildlife. Through mediation aid from the federal Highway administration the two sides got to an covenant in 2000 premised ~ above the idea that “the road is a visitor and also … it should respond to and be respectful the the land and the heart of Place.” researcher evaluated potential crossing locations based on wildlife crash frequency, local knowledge of wildlife movements and also land accessibility for cross structures, and also MDT started installing the 39 structures (mostly culvert underpasses) in 2005. The total cost the the crossings topped $21 million, i beg your pardon was primarily funded v Federal Highway management dollars allocated come MDT. A te later, a half-dozen studies have been excellent on your efficacy.

One study based upon 15 underpasses found that 24 types of animal used the crossings throughout the study period. Huijser and his co-authors discovered that deer were most likely to use them, followed by black bears and also coyotes, yet other pets including bobcats, ring-necked pheasants and racoons provided them, too. Another study carried out by Huijser found that the most efficient crossings top top Highway 93 decreased auto crashes with wildlife by practically 100%, and the least effective ones (those lacking optimal placement, design and fencing to encourage pets to usage them) enhanced wildlife-vehicle crashes by around 50%.

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Credit: Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Montana room of Transportation, and also the Western transport Institute.

Highway 93 is one outlier, though. Elsewhere, Montana has generally taken a much more transportation-centric method to mitigating roads’ effects on wildlife, and it’s not a good deal for animals — or motorists faced with expensive automobile repairs. MDT’s current procedure looks something prefer this, young name said: MDT identifies a ar of road that needs improvement, whether that means repaving it, widening it, or instead of a leg or guardrail, and also staff biologists advice the project’s potential come negatively impact wildlife. The department then applies a cost-benefit analysis to a variety of potential mitigation measures. Some space implemented and others aren’t. 

The most effective measures, native a collision-prevention and also habitat-connectivity perspective, also tend to lug the greatest price tags, i beg your pardon helps describe why few have been built in the state in the past decade. Building a leg over a highway sturdy sufficient to accommodate the soil and also vegetation the encourage animals to usage it is a spendy proposition, young name says. Overpasses cost between $1 million and also $7 million, and also underpasses selection from $250,000 to $600,000. To work well, researchers space learning, the structures often require 8-foot fences approximately 3 miles lengthy to command wildlife right into the crossings, and those fences come through a price tag, as well — about $50,000 every mile.

Martin said MDT’s capability to install wildlife crossings in the previous decade has been limited by the state’s capital model. The vast majority of Montana’s highway innovation dollars come from commonwealth coffers, and the remainder, around 13%, originates from the state’s gasoline tax, boy name said. As a result, MDT’s strategy has been come prioritize projects that align closely with federal funding opportunities, which have tended come prioritize public safety involves over wildlife. Wildlife-vehicle crashes in Montana may be frequent — Montana is 2nd only come West Virginia because that the likelihood a driver will certainly hit one animal, follow to data collected by insurance company State farm — however they’re seldom fatal, for human being anyway. 

“The an ext severe the safety and security , the simpler it is to money a project,” young name said. “They get precedence.”

What gets road ecologists prefer Rob Ament, Huijser’s colleague in ~ the Western transport Institute, for this reason excited about the brand-new allocation because that wildlife crossings in Congress’ infrastructure package is the truth that applicants favor cities, counties, states, and also tribes won’t have actually to compete for resources with bridges that must be changed or interstates that need resurfacing. 

“That’s why ns think the brand-new bill is a watershed ,” Ament said. 

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Credit: Confederated Salish and also Kootenai Tribes, Montana department of Transportation, and the Western transport Institute.

Huijser claims that apart from public safety, there space plenty the reasons, economic and otherwise, come invest in wildlife crossings. Although cross structures space expensive, Ament said the invest pencils out once transportation planners consider the costs associated with crashes in high-collision zones. (Between vehicle towing and repair, medical costs, carcass pick-up and also the animal’s approximated value alive, the average deer collision costs much more than $6,700, and larger animals an outcome in higher costs, follow to a 2008 report to Congress.) 

From a biological perspective, a paper Huijser co-authored on Highway 93’s crossing structures defines roads together “one of the largest, most straight impacts humans have actually on ecosystems.” Roads and associated rights-of-way degrade potential wildlife habitat, harass soil and hydrology, invite colonization by invasive types and can contribute to inbreeding, which has negative consequences because that a species’ hereditary health. Crossings can’t mitigate every one of those impacts, however Huijser says they’re one of the ideal tools transportation planners have, and also he’d prefer to check out Montana law more.

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“With some exceptions — however they are really rather old — Montana has been fairly stagnant” on the wildlife-crossing front, he said. “Given the dimension of ours state, the natural resources we have, i would have actually expected us to be doing much more over the critical decade.”

Part II that this collection will focus on a neighboring state the has created itself together a leader in wildlife cross initiatives.