Across the American West, a conflict has been quietly escalating for decades, leaving thousands of people injured and millions of animals dead. But the parties in this engagement aren’t out to harm each other; they’re mostly just trying to get where they’re going.
The conflict is between motorists and wildlife, especially big game such as elk, deer, moose, and pronghorn, and it’s playing out primarily on highways and the outskirts of suburban developments—places where the animals’ centuries-old migration routes have been obstructed or cut off by roads, buildings, fences, and other structures.
Now, however, a movement is afoot to preserve—and in some cases restore—wildlife migration corridors without sacrificing development, and to do so in ways that make travel safer for people and animals alike.
Wildlife need connected landscapes to move to and from their seasonal feeding and breeding grounds. And drivers need to feel confident that a large animal won’t suddenly bolt across the highway, endangering both humans and wildlife. Sportsmen, scientists, and community leaders in the West are warning that unless policymakers identify and conserve migration corridors for these animals, some species will be at serious risk.
The public is listening. A poll by the National Wildlife Federation found that nearly 85 percent of respondents in Colorado and New Mexico said they would like to see increased efforts to safeguard wildlife corridors. Further, 88 percent of respondents supported the construction of more wildlife overpasses and underpasses on roads and highways in order to facilitate safe passage for wildlife while reducing collisions with vehicles.
States have management responsibility over wildlife and most highways, even though the U.S. government plays a big role in managing wildlife habitat on federal lands and finances many transportation projects through the Highway Trust Fund. So state and local governments need to take the lead in conserving wildlife corridors while reducing animal-vehicle collisions in the West.
Fortunately, state policymakers are beginning to do that. Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) signed a first-in-the-nation executive order last August directing state agencies to identify and conserve wildlife migration corridors and important seasonal habitat, with the goals of helping animals thrive while reducing collisions with vehicles. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon (R) earlier this month took executive action after convening an advisory group that produced recommendations for improving wildlife migration policy; his directive safeguards three existing corridors used by mule deer in the state and sets guidelines requiring that additional migration corridors, based on scientific data, be identified by the state Game and Fish Department.
The New Mexico Legislature last March passed S.B. 228 to develop a Wildlife Corridor Action Plan to identify and prioritize wildlife movement areas and wildlife-friendly transportation infrastructure proposals. In Oregon, two months later, the Legislature passed H.B. 2834, directing the state’s Department of Transportation and Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop a Wildlife Corridor and Safe Road Crossing Action Plan to designate and protect wildlife corridors.
Other state wildlife and transportation agencies are changing their policies to make migration safer for deer, elk, and other large animals. For instance, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission approved a policy in 2016 that directs the state’s Game and Fish Department to designate crucial big-game migration corridors and draft assessments that look at threats such as energy development and transportation infrastructure, while also making management recommendations to conserve those migrations. The Montana Transportation Department and Department of Fish and Wildlife and Parks hosted a public summit in late 2018 that resulted in the two agencies working with nongovernmental organizations to identify and conserve migration areas and develop a plan for adapting highway infrastructure to enable safe passage for both wildlife and drivers.
Further evidence of the growing desire to conserve migration routes, and the animals that depend on them, came last June when the Western Governors’ Association passed a “Wildlife Migration Corridors and Habitat” resolution, which called for better federal-state collaboration on policy development and implementation, and additional resources—in the next federal highway bill—to build wildlife-friendly transportation infrastructure. Congress listened: The America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019 (S. 2302), introduced in the Senate last summer with bipartisan support, would establish a novel wildlife crossings pilot program aimed at reducing the number of collisions and improving habitat connectivity. The legislation would also require the U.S. Department of Transportation to study the causes and effects of such collisions. The bill passed out of committee unanimously and is awaiting action on the Senate floor; a companion bill is expected to be introduced in the House of Representatives soon.
Lastly, new research conducted by the Center for Large Landscape Conservation and commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts found a net financial benefit from building wildlife overpasses and underpasses in spots where collisions occur regularly—with the savings that result from avoided accidents exceeding the costs of constructing the crossings.
Now is the time for leaders at all levels of government to build on this momentum. With new science and several policy initiatives forming, states should commit to projects that make our roads and highways safer for drivers and animals alike, and federal land agencies should consider amending their management plans to account for and conserve migration corridors.
States and the federal government have the tools, knowledge, and resources to solve the human-wildlife conflict. Doing so would help people, economies, animals, and habitat throughout the American West.
Tom Wathen leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ land conservation projects, which span the Americas from the Arctic Ocean to the tip of South America.
This article first appeared in The Hill.