THE BUZZ 2: Wildlife Get A Brake

By on October 11, 2016

County officials make a commitment to protecting wildlife and motorists from highway collisions.

Left: A proposal rendering of a wildlife crossing for I-70 near Vail, Colorodo. (Photo: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates) Right: Trapper’s Point overpass and wildlife crossing near Pinedale. (Photo: Jeff Burrell, Wildlife Conservation Society)

Left: A proposal rendering of a wildlife crossing for I-70 near Vail, Colorodo. (Photo: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates) Right: Trapper’s Point overpass and wildlife crossing near Pinedale. (Photo: Jeff Burrell, Wildlife Conservation Society) Bottom right: The result of a moose-vehicle collision on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. (Photo: Alaska Wildlife Troopers)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Marcia Willingham remembers driving up through Bondurant last fall on one of her frequent trips to Jackson. She was behind a semi tractor-trailer when she saw it plow into a small band of mule deer. One was hit so violently it flew through the air and landed in a mangled heap at the roadside.

“He never hit the brakes. It didn’t look like he even slowed down that much,” Willingham said.

That stretch of Highway 189 was recently dubbed a “wild game bowling alley” by local outdoorsman Paul Bruun. Wildlife-vehicle collision mapping conducted by the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation (JHWF) identifies the Hoback Canyon—as well as other hotspots on Highways 22 and 390, north of Jackson on Highway 191, and numerous smaller feeder roads like Spring Gulch and Fish/Fall Creek Road—as a high priority area where big game carnage is especially high.

Brent Cole was a 15-year wildlife conservation officer driving his Chevrolet Impala along the TransCanada Highway near Gander, Newfoundland, when he crashed into an 18-point, 1,000-pound bull moose. The accident left him a quadriplegic after the animal landed on the roof of his car and crushed his spine. He is now one of the foremost advocates for wildlife crossings in North America.

In 2012, moose were being massacred in alarming numbers on Teton Village Road. A coalition was formed, WYDOT lowered the nighttime speed limit from 45 to 35 mph, the county bought electronic message boards, and private citizen Bruce Simon sprinkled moose silhouette cutouts down the road. The problem abated somewhat but the highway remains a favorite with moose and other wildlife.

First step

“When we say in our Comp Plan that wildlife is a high, if not the highest priority value, what are the things we are doing to demonstrate that?” pondered Jon Mobeck, executive director of the Wildlife Foundation. “There are a number of things we could do better. We should be looking at speed limits, education, designating wildlife-crossing corridors a little more conspicuously, and wildlife crossings. They are all part of a package that can continue to reduce collisions. We’ve done some things but probably not enough. And we have an opportunity here to be a leader on a global scale; to show visitors coming here we are a community that truly cherishes our wildlife.”

One tool in the toolbox in helping to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions is wildlife crossings—underpasses, overpasses, tunnels, and the like. They work, but they’re expensive. The JH Conservation Alliance has been at the forefront of leading a movement to get county officials to think about wildlife crossings. They had hoped to land a SPET initiative to that effort until Budge slide usurped the ballot.

Now, with the announcement that county leaders had dedicated $100,000 in seed money to study the feasibility of crossings in and around the valley, it appears the idea could be gaining traction.

The declaration from the county commissioners last week read: “Commissioners unanimously approved a contract with Western Transportation Institute (WTI) to develop a plan to ensure Jackson Hole’s wildlife populations can move safely throughout their habitat, while also decreasing the chance of dangerous vehicle-wildlife collisions throughout the county.”

Board of county commissioners chair Barbara Allen heralded the decision as both sustaining a healthy ecosystem and ensuring public safety.

A prepared statement from the Alliance read, “The Alliance applauds the Board of Teton County Commissioners in moving forward with proactively addressing the critical problem of wildlife vehicle collisions in our county. This master planning effort will bring together all the relevant agency stakeholders in order to craft a data-driven, systematic master plan that identifies solutions for high-priority mitigation sites. Over the past few years, dozens of community members, conservation groups and agencies have spoken up about the need for such an effort. “

Smart partnering

Western Transportation Institute (WTI) is a part of Montana State University’s College of Engineering. The 22-year-old organization is one of the nation’s leading experts in highway design in natural Western settings. Mobeck said WTI offers the perfect partnership for Jackson Hole.

“I think it’s tremendous the board of county commissioners has chose to work with WTI,” Mobeck said. “Rob Ament and that group have helped us before with our camera trap project. They are familiar with the area and they are experts. They’ve played in the sandbox with everybody. They also know the challenges with placements and campaigns necessary to get these things on the ground.”

The cost of crossings remains the primary sticking point and the reason why they haven’t caught on in the U.S. Wildlife crossings have been a mainstay throughout Europe since the 1950s. In Canada, Banff authorities launched an aggressive campaign to install 38 underpasses, six overpasses, and some 82 miles of fencing to funnel big game safely across the TransCanada Highway.

WTI will be working with WYDOT as that state agency goes through the planning stages of reconfiguring Highway 189 south of Jackson to four lanes all the way to Hoback Junction.

Crossings work

Study after study shows wildlife-vehicle collisions are reduced by 80 to 90 percent in areas where crossings are installed. In fact, wildlife biologists continue to be amazed at how many different species use crossings. When put in for moose and elk, wolves and bears use them. When designed for mule deer and pronghorn, badgers and fox run across them. From mountain lions to mountain goats, wildlife gets it and gets it fast.

When overpasses were put in place at Trappers Point north of Pinedale, authorities guesstimated it would take a few years for antelope to figure them out and begin using them. Wildlife began using the crossings immediately.

“We certainly have plenty of evidence at Trappers Point—and data going back much farther in Banff and Montana near Flathead Lake—that we know crossings can be effective in reducing wildlife collisions,” Mobeck said. “The Wyoming Migration Initiative is doing extensive work on the pronghorn and their migration to the Red Desert. They identified that the structures built in Pinedale mostly for pronghorn were being used by all sorts of populations of wildlife. In fact, none of these animals are existing just in our valley. We are part of a larger system. And throughout the ‘Y to Y’ region [Yukon to Yellowstone] we know wildlife has to cross a lot of highways. It’s vital to keep these habitats connected.”

So animals use crossings, but can that be a bad thing? Some skeptics have speculated wildlife crossings could create an unnatural condition—an ungulate smorgasbord—where ready snacks could theoretically be funneled right into the waiting teeth of predators. Data collected from Banff regional crossings suggest there is no evidence pointing to predators stalking crossings for prey; rather, crossings have assisted some species in procreation endeavors.

In Banff, scientists found male bears used crossings as virtual speed-dating joints, moving freely back-and-forth across highways to inseminate sows.

The cost

Wildlife crossings pack a hefty price tag, but what is the cost of doing nothing? We spend an estimated $8 billion a year in the U.S. running over wildlife. In Teton County, wildlife crashes cost motorists an estimated $1.2 million, annually, according to JHWF research.

The foundation also estimated at least 118 animals were hit on park roads last year (GTNP keeps its own statistics) and 259 wildlife-vehicle crashes were also recorded in 2015. That number is expected to climb to 500 per year by 2020.

This year began with several bear killings on local highways. A griz cub was struck and killed on Togwotee Pass this spring. Two bears were killed on the same day in June when Grizzly 399’s only cub was run down by a motorist in Grand Teton National Park and another black bear was struck and killed nearby. Neither incident was reported.

Soaring population in Teton County, as well as record numbers of visitors, puts more people on the roads. Tourists, especially, are usually unfamiliar with safe driving habits in big game country.

“Clearly it’s a safety issue and cost issue. You can do some pretty simple math and quickly arrive at a high number,” Mobeck said. “It’s kind of a win-win. Crossings provide the safety we are always looking for, and help protect the wildlife we cherish.” PJH

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