Wildlife in Nevada Face Increasing Threats From Suburban Growth and Busy Highways

Road crossings for animals would reduce accidents and help big game follow migration routes

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Wildlife in Nevada Face Increasing Threats From Suburban Growth and Busy Highways
Mule deer
A mule deer buck crosses an overpass above U.S. Highway 93 near Elko, Nevada. Completed in 2010 for about $2.2 million, the overpass is the state’s first built specifically for wildlife. The Nevada Department of Transportation found that more than 35,000 mule deer used the structure in its first four years.
Nevada Department of Transportation

Each spring and fall, through the mountains and valleys north of Reno, Nevada, herds of mule deer migrate to reach the best foraging grounds—those that provide the most green or the least amount of snowpack—for the upcoming summer or winter. The animals learn these routes from their mothers and pass them down from generation to generation—a necessity to the herd’s survival.

Nevada is one of the fastest-growing states, and Reno is among its fastest-growing regions. Suburbs, such as North Valleys just north of the city, are exploding with new housing and roads, development that often overlaps with the valley habitat that mule deer need during the harsh winter months. This has forced wildlife into smaller, marginal patches of land surrounded by roads.  

Many of these mule deer never complete their migration, succumbing to collisions with cars and trucks on U.S. Highway 395, the main artery running north from Reno. And worse, these accidents also kill or injure people. The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) estimates that there are over 50 animal collisions a year on this section of highway, making it the state’s top priority hot spot for animal-vehicle collisions.

This satellite image shows that animals migrating between the mountains just west of Reno and the valleys north of the city must cross U.S. Highway 395 and housing developments, which have been growing in recent years.
Google Earth

Each year, according to NDOT, more than 500 reported wildlife-vehicle collisions kill over 5,000 animals and cost the state close to $20 million. Such crashes are notoriously underreported, and transportation officials estimate that the actual number is significantly higher. 

Deer crossing road
Each year across the U.S., wildlife-vehicle collisions kill thousands of animals on highways and other roads that intersect critical wildlife habitat. Many of these also kill or injure motorists.
Morten Falch Sortland Getty Images

But these numbers could be much lower. Wildlife-crossing underpasses and overpasses, when installed correctly, provide safe passage for animals to move across roads. Nevada has begun embracing these strategies and now has 20 such crossings in place, including multiple overpasses along Interstate 80 at Pequop Pass in the northeast part of the state that were completed in 2018. And NDOT and the Nevada Department of Wildlife plan additional monitoring along U.S. Highway 395 in the coming year to ascertain where interventions may have the most benefit. 

On the critical issue of funding, there is more reason for optimism. Wildlife crossings are expensive, so they are often paired with major highway enhancements to make construction more cost-efficient. At North Valleys, the state is on the cusp of launching a multiphased highway improvement project to accommodate projected growth and increasing congestion.

This presents an excellent opportunity for Nevada to make travel safer for humans and wildlife by building a new wildlife overpass over U.S. Highway 395. An infusion of new, dedicated federal and state funding could be all that’s needed for this project to become a reality.

The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, which President Joe Biden signed into law in November 2021, establishes a wildlife-crossing safety program to construct structures such as this much-needed overpass. The law provides $350 million over five years for competitive grants to states, communities, and tribes. Already, $60 million in grant funding is authorized for fiscal year 2022.

But this federal investment is not enough, and competitive grant applications may require matching state funds. To that end, Nevada officials and stakeholders are in the early stages of planning a financing mechanism to fund wildlife-crossing construction.

Although helping wildlife safely cross U.S. Highway 395 would be significant, it is just one piece of a larger puzzle. Increasing development, traffic, fencing, and other obstacles in this region will continue to make it difficult for mule deer and other wildlife to move between winter and summer habitat. Pew will continue to work closely with the local community, civic leaders, land use planners, and public land managers to advocate for protection of wildlife migratory routes and seasonal habitat into the future.

Matt Skroch is a project director and Nic Callero is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation team.

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