Ungulates and Highways Workshop Advances Safety and Conservation
Wildlife biologists and highway engineers from 14 western states convened January 29 – 31 in Salt Lake City, Utah to evaluate what is known about conflicts between ungulates and highways and how wildlife and transportation agencies can collaborate to improve highway safety and conservation. They were joined by experts from five federal agencies, three universities, and over a dozen NGOs. The workshop revealed the importance of a shared vision among top-level leaders in wildlife and transportation agencies as well as solid relationships between field-level staff, local stakeholders, and NGOs. Other outcomes included recognition of the need for earlier integration of data on ungulate movements in highway planning processes; additional research into the design, effectiveness, and cost:benefit ratios of crossing structures; and more creative approaches to financing and implementing permeability of transportation corridors. Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) chief scientist, Ed Arnett, helped organize the workshop and was pleased to see the level of commitment by both wildlife and transportation interests to work together to solve problems.
Wildlife-vehicle collisions (WVCs) cause millions of dollars of damage, serious human injuries, and numerous fatalities each year across the western states. Direct mortality of ungulates due to WVCs and interruption of migratory movements can also have population-level impacts for species like deer, elk, pronghorns, and bighorn sheep. Over 80 wildlife and transportation experts came together for three days at the workshop to explore ways to address these issues. The impetus for the workshop was reflected in the views of the people who worked on the massive project to upgrade Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass. Their motto was, “We can’t let wildlife stop the highway and we can’t let the highway stop the wildlife.”
Biologists brought information on ungulate movement patterns. Engineers brought information on highway planning processes and design options. Representatives from the Federal Highway Administration shared information on funding opportunities and limitations. Academics and insurance industry experts discussed the magnitude of economic impacts associated with vehicle damage, human injuries and deaths, and ungulate mortality. Multiple case studies were explored, and Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming representatives described how workshops, project planning and implementation experiences improved coordination between their wildlife and transportation agencies. Casey Stemler, the US Fish and Wildlife coordinator for implementation of Secretarial Order 3362, conveyed the importance the Department of the Interior places on finding ways to protect deer, elk, and pronghorn migrations, while recognizing the importance of the nation’s transportation infrastructure to the economy and national security.
It was evident from the outset that a shared vision among top-level staff in a state’s wildlife and transportation agencies is critical. Without that, engineers may focus solely on moving vehicles safely and efficiently, which can lead to transportation corridors becoming impassable barriers to animal movements. At the same time, it is equally important that local wildlife biologists build good working relationships with district highway planners and maintenance personnel who are responsible for the design and upkeep of modifications to infrastructure to facilitate ungulate movement and reduce collisions. Local stakeholders and NGOs can also play a key role in helping find ways to address the very real limitations on transportation agencies’ options when it comes to financing features to augment conservation.
Among the biggest, yet potentially resolvable challenges, is finding ways to effectively integrate wildlife movement data into transportation planning. Each state must develop a Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) that looks out 20 to 40 years, as well as a Surface Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) that has a 4 or 5-year “moving window.” Individual projects flow from these planning processes, but typically public input and NEPA analyses of projects doesn’t occur until a project is at the 50 to 75% design phase. That’s far too late to incorporate the kind of changes that are often necessary to mitigate impacts on ungulate movements. To address this, wildlife agencies need to engage early and often with transportation agencies when developing their LRTPs and especially STIPs.
Funding for GPS collars and other research was made available under Sec. Order 3362 and the data is rapidly increasing biologists’ understanding of deer, elk, and pronghorn movements and their ability to identify locations where migrations and highway corridors intersect. However, more research is needed into the design and effectiveness of various crossing structures. The height, width, and length of overpasses and underpasses and fencing to funnel movements toward crossings appear to be important to use by wildlife. Establishing standards for what works and what doesn’t will help engineers design more effective structures. Additional research is also needed into the cost:benefit ratios associated with making highway corridors more permeable to justify the expense. A key part of that research will be quantifying the costs of ungulate mortality, including such things as lost opportunity for people to view and hunt deer, elk, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep.
The workshop was organized by the TRCP, with financial support from the TRCP, Archery Trade Association, Federal Premium Ammunition, Mule Deer Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the Wild Sheep Foundation. A summary of the workshop and additional information on the topic of ungulates and highways will be available soon on the TRCP website.