bear crossing sign, © Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission

Watch Out For Wildlife

I imagine if you’re anything like us, you’re looking for wildlife wherever you go, whether it’s at a national park, a city boulevard, or your own backyard. This seeking takes on a different purpose when you’re driving a vehicle. Not only are you looking for wildlife for the sake of seeing an interesting critter, but now you’ve got your own safety to consider, and the animal’s safety as well. This week is Watch out for Wildlife Awareness Week. It’s a time to remind ourselves to put aside distractions while driving and focus on the road – for our sake and for wildlife.

We’ve all had those cringe-worthy moments where that squirrel jumped out at just the wrong moment or the skunk was too dark to see. Each year, there are between 1 and 2 million collisions between vehicles and wildlife on U.S. roadways. Though the majority of these accidents involve white-tailed deer, regions that are still lucky enough to have large species like elk, moose, black or grizzly bears, and bighorn sheep can have the same problem with those species. Most estimates of wildlife-vehicle collision numbers in the U.S. don’t even include the incalculably vast numbers of small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and even insects like migrating butterflies, that collide with tires, grills and windshields of the millions of vehicles careening across the country’s roads.

Grizzly crossing, © Greg Ochocki

Road fragment wildlife habitat, forcing them to cross to get to food or other resources.

Imperiled species are even more heavily impacted by roadways. Traffic has been shown to be the leading human-caused mortality source for some wide-ranging mammals such as the critically endangered Florida panther and the endemic Florida black bear. Collisions with vehicles take a terrible toll on these panthers, whose population is estimated at fewer than 200 adults. In 2012, a record 19 were killed on Florida roads. So far this year we’ve lost 15 panthers to vehicle collisions – with several months left to go. These deaths prevent panthers from expanding their range. Whenever populations of an animal are small and every single individual matters in terms of the long-term survival of the species, deaths from highways can be a serious threat.

Even when animals aren’t killed, roads can have an impact on their survival. Some sensitive species tend to be reluctant to move across roads. This causes fragmentation of their habitat as they are blocked into the roadless areas of their habitats, unable to freely move to find food sources and mates. This can lead to lower reproduction rates and smaller populations – a major concern for species that are already imperiled.

What You Can Do – Both On and Off the Road

This seems like a depressing array of information about the terrible impacts of roadways and highways. So what can be done about it? As individuals, we can all become more attentive drivers – try to think like an animal when you consider the landscape you’re driving through – where would an animal move through and across the road? At those locations, slow down. Of course there are those times when animals jump out at the last moment and we simply can do nothing about it. In those moments, if you’re able, report the roadkill to your department of transportation since every bit of information about wildlife collision hotspots can inform wildlife and highway managers. Visit our Watch Out for Wildlife page for a complete set of driving tips and a handy card with reminders and contact info for your glove box.

As a U.S. citizen, you can encourage the federal government to increase funding for this wildlife and human safety issue. Although animal-vehicle collisions have increased significantly since 2000 (while overall crashes have decreased), transportation officials are spending nowhere near enough of our nation’s safety dollars for highway programs needed to address this issue. It is critical that the U.S. DOT and Federal Highways Administration ensure that adequate funding is allocated to curb this mounting safety hazard.

Within your community, you can organize together to pressure departments of transportation (DOT) to consider wildlife when designing or reconstructing roadways. There are many steps these DOTs can take to reduce the chance of wildlife-vehicle collisions, including culverts, bridges, underpasses (tunnels) or overpasses (bridges over roads for wildlife), and fencing used to guide animals to these structures. Wildlife fencing with a combination of underpasses and overpasses has proved to be one of the most effective measures to reduce collisions with large wildlife species – in fact, research shows that it can reduce collisions with large wild ungulates (deer, elk, moose, etc.) by 79-97%. Contact your DOT and ask them to consider wildlife in their designs and reconstruction projects.

And remember to always Watch Out for Wildlife while driving!

Success Stories – When Wildlife Crosses The Road Safely

Wildlife Overpass, © People's Way Partnership

A wildlife overpass or underpass can give animals a way to get across without putting themselves in the path of speeding vehicles.

We’ve been involved in a great example of successful wildlife crossings through the US Highway 93 North reconstruction project on the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwest Montana. As the DOT reconstructed 56 miles of this road, it installed 41 fish and wildlife crossing structures and 18 miles of wildlife exclusion fencing to reduce accidents, give wildlife safe ways to cross the road, and minimize impacts to sensitive wetlands. This highway section has more wildlife-safety structures than any other stretch of roadway in the United States. Between 2010 and 2013, motion-triggered cameras documented 30 different species using the structures a total of 53,600 times. White-tailed deer and mule deer are common, but other users include black bear, grizzly bear, red fox, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, elk, moose, river otter, muskrat, beaver, raccoon, skunk, rabbit, badger, marmot, porcupine and more. Since the crossings were installed, the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions in several areas has dropped. We are proud to be involved in this effort as part of the People’s Way Partnership , spreading the word about the value and importance of these structures.

In Florida, wildlife crossings have been extremely effective in preventing endangered panthers and other wildlife from being killed on roads. One of the earliest projects in the country occurred during the conversion of two-lane Alligator Alley (State Route 84 between Naples and Miami) to part of I-75 from 1986 to 1993. The two-lane road already had a high rate of panther road mortality, so wildlife advocates were seriously concerned about a four-lane interstate highway that would cut through panther habitat in Big Cypress National Preserve, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. By coming together to advocate for a way to protect panthers, we helped convince officials to include 24 wildlife crossings and 13 bridge extensions (which give animals room to cross under the bridges) to allow safe passage of panthers and other wildlife under the highway. These changes along 40 miles of I-75 virtually eliminated road-related panther deaths in that area, and are used by many other species, including Florida black bear, deer, bobcat, marsh rabbit, alligators, turtles, snakes and more.

Kylie Paul is the Rockies & Plains Representative at Defenders of Wildlife
Elizabeth Fleming is the Senior Florida Representative at Defenders of Wildlife