States Aim to Boost Safe Passage for Wildlife While Improving Motorist Safety

Collisions with migrating big game prompt leaders to look for science-based solutions

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States Aim to Boost Safe Passage for Wildlife While Improving Motorist Safety
Pronghorn antelope
Pronghorn antelope in western Wyoming look to cross a highway during their fall migration. Wildlife-vehicle collisions present a significant threat to public safety and wildlife. From July 2017 to June 2018, more than 1 million collisions occurred in the U.S. between vehicles and deer, elk, moose, and caribou, according to the State Farm insurance company.
Joe Riis

Big-game animals in the American West today are increasingly squeezed by growing suburban areas, energy development, climate change, and an expanding road network—factors that are threatening the landscape connections that wildlife need to move to and from their seasonal feeding and breeding grounds. Sportsmen, biologists, scientists, and local communities are warning that unless policymakers identify and conserve migration corridors, certain wildlife will be at serious risk. And the public is listening.  A recent poll by the National Wildlife Federation found that “more than 84% of respondents in Colorado and New Mexico said they would like to see increased efforts to safeguard wildlife corridors.”

Bighorn sheep
Bighorn sheep, one of New Mexico’s iconic wildlife species, can be found across the state, from the Carson National Forest in the north to the Chihuahuan Desert lands in the south.
New Mexico Bureau of Land Management

Science and technology are providing important insights into how wildlife moves across Western landscapes, and state policymakers are beginning to act on this information in ways that will help conserve critical wildlife migrations and improve motorist safety on America’s increasingly busy roads and highways.  The federal government plays a big role in managing wildlife habitat on public lands and funds many transportation projects through the Highway Trust Fund, but states have management responsibility over wildlife and most highways.  To conserve wildlife corridors while reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions in the West, state and local governments need to take the lead on these issues and guide their agencies to effectively link science with policy.   

Fortunately, this is beginning to happen.  From Montana to New Mexico, states are identifying hot spots where collisions occur and linking those areas with the larger habitat conservation needs on either side of the road. 

mule deer
A mule deer crosses a road in Dubois, Wyoming. Wildlife depend on unfragmented habitat, including migration corridors, for survival.
Greg Nickerson

Some state wildlife and transportation agencies are changing their polices to make migration safer for ungulates and other wildlife. For instance, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission approved a policy in 2017 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 areas. The Montana Transportation Department and Department of Fish and Wildlife and Parks hosted a public summit that resulted in the two agencies working with non-governmental organizations to identify and conserve migration areas and develop a plan for adapting highway infrastructure to enable safe passage for both wildlife and drivers.

Rocky elk
Rocky elk move across a hillside on their fall migration in Colorado’s Williams Fork Mountains. More than 250,000 of these animals make their home in this state—the largest herd of its kind in North America.
John Fielder

Governors are also beginning to lead on this issue.  Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a first-of-its-kind executive order in August directing state agencies to identify and conserve wildlife migration corridors and important seasonal habitat, with the goals of helping animals thrive and reducing collisions with vehicles. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon is mulling executive action after he convened an advisory group that produced recommendations for improving wildlife migration policy.

State legislatures are also acting on the issue.  In March, the New Mexico Legislature 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, the Legislature in May 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 with an eye toward reducing vehicle-wildlife collisions. The Pew Charitable Trusts testified in support of this bill in the Oregon House and Senate. 

elk cross byway
Two elk cross northeast Oregon’s Elkhorn Scenic Byway. The Oregon Department of Transportation records an average of 7,000 wildlife-vehicle collisions per year, resulting in 700 human injuries and $44 million in vehicle damage annually.
Baker County Tourism

Further evidence of the growing desire to conserve migration routes and the animals that depend on them came in June, when the Western Governors’ Association passed a "Wildlife Migration Corridors and Habitat" resolution, which called for federal policies that are informed by states, better collaboration on policy development and implementation between state and federal agencies, and additional resources—in the next federal highway bill—to build wildlife-friendly transportation infrastructure.  This resolution should help fuel more action at the state and federal levels.  Pew looks forward to continuing its partnerships with state and federal agencies, governors, and nongovernmental organizations to leverage the burgeoning science on wildlife migration and establish policies that restore the health of migrating wildlife, preserve their habitat, and improve motorist safety across the U.S. 

Matt Skroch is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation team.

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