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In New Mexico canyon, a novel way to prevent roadkill

Lobbied by concerned students, the state created a critter-friendly underpass.

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Wildlife suited to these ecological niches will shift as well. Scientists have already observed what they say are climate-induced migrations of plants and animals. With climate putting wildlife on the move, barriers like I-40 could theoretically supply a critical blow to a population or species.

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“If you don’t allow for passage of wildlife over large areas,” says Kim Vacariu in Portal, Ariz., “you’re going to exacerbate the extinction crisis that we face right now.” He is the western director for the Wildlands Project, a conservation organization.

The present economic turmoil notwithstanding, the movement to create or preserve connections among wild areas has gained momentum in recent years, especially in the relatively sparsely populated West.

In June, the Western Gov­er­nors’ Association voted to make wildlife corridors a top priority. Wildlife overpasses – bridges over highways planted with trees and grass to make them more attractive to wildlife – already arch over roads in Canada and Florida. Colorado, Washington State, and Ari­zona are planning them. Or­­ganizations such as the Wildlands Project, meanwhile, are pushing for a north-south wildlife corridor along the “spine of the continent”: a 5,000-mile swath of unbroken wilderness from Mexico to Alaska along the Rockies.

But while these plans – halfway between dream and reality, according to Mr. Vacariu – may sound grand, efforts to establish wildlife migration routes inevitably begin as a safety issue for humans.

In the United States, there are between 725,000 and 1.5 million vehicle collisions with ungulates (hoofed animals that include deer, elk, and moose) yearly. Collisions with deer alone cost $1.1 billion in vehicle damage annually. And they’re on the rise.

A recent report by the Highway Loss Data Institute, an auto insurance-funded research organization, found that claims resulting from wildlife-vehicle collisions have increased 15 percent in the past five years. Fatal crashes have gone up by half since 2000. The study points to increasing human encroachment on wildlife habitat as one cause. The good news: Wildlife crossings can help. A study in Canada’s Banff National Park in Alberta found that, with 24 wildlife underpasses and overpasses in place, collisions fell 80 percent.

“This whole thing is really about safe passage,” says Vacariu. “Humans need that, and so does wildlife.”