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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.”
New Mexico reports some 800 collisions yearly, likely half of the actual number, says Mark Watson, a habitat specialist with the state’s Department of Game and Fish in Santa Fe. Trucks pulling semitrailers, usually undamaged during collisions, often don’t report them, he says.
Low on funds, state officials were happy to discover that I-40 had three already-existing underpasses in Tijeras Canyon, says Jeff Fredine, an environmental analyst at the NMDOT in Santa Fe. Two additional culverts could also provide passage for top-of-the-food-chain critters like bears and cougars – animals without fear of dark, cramped quarters.
NMDOT installed fencing, some of it electrified, to funnel wildlife toward the underpasses. It also created an overland crossing on a frontage road that runs parallel to I-40 in the canyon. There, electrified mats keep animals moving forward. Lights, triggered by motion sensors, warn motorists of crossing critters. DOT also cleared brush from the underpasses to make them friendlier to predator-wary deer, which are the No. 1 concern.
“We just needed to clean out the underpasses and give [the animals] an incentive,” says Mr. Fredine.
Now, Mr. Watson finds coyote, mule deer, and bobcat prints in the muddy passages.
The project went remarkably smoothly and quickly, says Kurt Menke, co-chair of the Tijeras Canyon Safe Passage Coalition in Albuquerque, a citizens’ group that helped in the effort. One reason: It was framed as a safety issue.
“It’s kind of a win-win,” says Menke. “No one wants to hit a deer.”
The fencing may be having some unintended consequences: Finding their habitual crossing areas blocked by fences, and not yet familiar with the underpasses, animals are loitering more in the Village of Tijeras (population 500), says village mayor Gloria Chavez.
“The animals are getting stuck,” Mayor Chavez says. Her daughter hit a deer last May and, in September, a prowling bear sent the local elementary school into lockdown.
It may take a generation for some animals to learn the new routes, Watson says. There are other kinks, too: Bears were involved in two of the three collisions this year, for example. They may pose a unique challenge to designers of highway wildlife crossings. The Banff study found that, although grizzlies use overpasses, installing safe road crossings had no impact on the number of vehicle-bear collisions: Accidents rose in concert with the amount of traffic on the road.
These large, headstrong animals may simply not be deterred by electric fences, Fredine says. “They are big animals,” he says. If they’re determined to cross, there may be no way to stop them.