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Efforts persist to rebuild wildlife connectivity with highway crossings

by KELSEY EVANS
Daily Inter Lake | July 11, 2024 12:00 AM

For humans, roads are more than infrastructure. They can be cultural phenoms or a symbol of freedom.  

But for all the freedom they provide, they create a “deadly ecological divide ... that denies animals the ability to move freely and safely around the environment,” said author Ben Goldfarb during a presentation June 26 at the Whitefish Community Center.

Goldfarb was the key speaker at a community discussion on wildlife crossings hosted by Glacier Two-Medicine Alliance.

“Between Flathead National Forest, Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness, there’s a crucial highway area dividing core habitats,” said Peter Metcalf, executive director of Glacier Two-Medicine Alliance. “We’ve seen in the last 20 years a huge decline of activity for mountain goats, bears and other animals.”

Goldfarb, whose tour of wildlife crossings along Montana’s portion U.S. 2 in 2013 was his first segway to writing his new book “Crossings: How Road Ecology Shaped the Planet,” said, “It’s a beautiful full circle moment for me to be here.” 

Second only to West Virginia, Montana has the second most per capita large animal collisions with 1 to 2 million animals killed annually.

But there are other ways roads harm animals, according to Goldfarb.

The noise of vehicles traveling on roads – the sonic footprint – can travel 3 miles.

In a 2013 phantom noise experiment, Boise State University researchers recorded noise from I-90 and then replayed that noise in a different area to create a phantom road. They found that animals either avoided the phantom road area or remained and ended up in worse health. 

“If you can’t hear mates and predators, you have to spend a lot more time and energy looking instead, leaving less time for activities like foraging,” Goldfarb said. 

Goldfarb said a few other harms include the transportation of invasive species, the creation of erosion zones and turning highways into saltlicks.

“The era of climate change only further impacts seasonal habitat changes and losses. We need to be ahead of the curve economically and ecologically to keep wildlife connected,” Metcalf said. 

“You lose the crown corridor, you lose the habitat,” Metcalf said.

However, change is on the horizon with $350 million in funding for wildlife crossings allocated in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

Through the law’s Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes received an $8.6 million grant last December to construct a wildlife overpass spanning U.S. 93, known as “The People’s Way.” 

“In the context of transportation budgets, $8 to $10 million to pay for a crossing is minuscule and quickly recoups the money through crash prevention in just a few years,” Goldfarb said.

Not every passing has to be a million dollar overpass, Goldfarb said.

“You can work with unintended, preexisting crossings like culverts … and you can add fences to funnel animals through it,” Goldfarb said. 

As for Glacier National Park, Sarah Lundstrum, the Glacier program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said recent discussions with BNSF Railway have thrown around the possibility of adapting railroad avalanche sheds to be utilized as wildlife crossings.  

Recent court rulings are also making moves toward recognizing the impact of roads – even closed roads – on animals and their displaced habitats.  

On June 24, federal Judge Dana Christensen of Missoula stopped the Flathead National Forest from implementing its forest plan for the 2.4 million acres because he said the U.S. Forest Service ignored the impact of roads on the endangered grizzly bear and bull trout populations. 

This ruling builds upon a decision in March that found that the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to lawfully examine the impacts to grizzly bears and bull trout from motorized trespass on closed roads. 

“The courts have confirmed that as long as roads exist on the landscape, whether open or closed to motorized use, they are a threat to grizzly bears and bull trout,” said Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition, one of the groups to bring the lawsuit. 

Goldfarb said the rulings show, “good things are coming. But it’s just a start.” 

To learn more about wildlife connectivity and how to report wildlife observations, both alive and dead, along U.S. 2 between Browning and Columbia Falls, visit glaciertwomedicine.org/fish-and-wildlife-conservation/wildlife-connectivity.