Every spring, as they have for millennia, millions of animals in the American West—such as elk, pronghorn, and mule deer—journey from their winter grounds to cooler, more lush summer habitat to fatten up before fall. Then, as high-elevation snow starts to fall, they retrace their steps to warmer, lower elevations to wait out winter. These wildlife migrations can span hundreds of miles as animals trek through valleys and mountains over the course of weeks or even months. The routes they take, known as wildlife migration corridors, are passed down from generation to generation.
But many of these ancient corridors are interrupted or otherwise fragmented by high-traffic roads and highways. And that’s a lose-lose for both motorists and wildlife: More than 1 million wildlife-vehicle collisions occur every year in the U.S., killing and injuring tens of thousands of people and countless animals, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Historically, transportation officials have had few tools to address this issue beyond simply erecting signage that alerts drivers to the potential for animals on the road, a strategy that has done little to reduce the number or frequency of crashes.
But good news is on the way. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021—which Congress passed on Nov. 5, and President Joe Biden signed into law on Nov.15 —establishes a wildlife crossing safety program that will fund much more strategic infrastructure than just roadway signs. The law provides $350 million over five years for competitive grants to municipalities, states, and tribes for the construction of bridges, tunnels, culverts, fencing, and other infrastructure that will allow wildlife safe passage either under or over roads. Such projects, which some states began implementing over the past few years, are proven to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions, lowering the number of human injuries and deaths and improving the health of wildlife populations. Some of these structures have reduced collisions by more than 80%.
In the American West, many stretches of road are in need of solutions. In western Colorado, a stretch of U.S. Highway 550 near Billy Creek Wildlife Area is infamous for its roadkill and, occasionally, major accidents that kill or injure motorists. The same is true along a portion of U.S. Highway 26/287 between Riverton and Dubois in Wyoming, and on U.S. Highway 20 in eastern Oregon, where the Burns Paiute Tribe is working toward a solution.
The first batch of funding for this program—$60 million—will be distributed as competitive grants to deserving projects in the current fiscal year. Before the money goes out the door, however, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) needs to develop guidelines for the grant program, including providing details on matters such as project eligibility and accountability measures. For example, how will grant applications be graded in terms of their impact on reducing collisions or improving habitat connectivity? What is the expected life span of wildlife infrastructure? What are expected maintenance needs? Will applicants benefit by using new technologies that save money and speed construction? These questions and others need to be addressed by DOT during the public process of program implementation.
Pew looks forward to working with agency officials, wildlife and highway safety experts, and transportation and infrastructure specialists to achieve timely and efficient implementation of the wildlife crossing program and to help grant applicants navigate it. The law has the potential to yield a huge return on investment by making roads safer, and populations of wildlife healthier, across the American West.
Matt Skroch is a project director and Tom St. Hilaire is a senior officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.