July 22, 2013

Donated flight provides bird’s-eye view of innovative highway projects. 

Kylie Paul, Rockies & Plains Representative 

If we could all see as eagles do, the need for habitat conservation would be a lot easier to visualize. I flew above western Montana last week, and it was better than any time spent staring at a map. I helped lead an outreach and information-gathering event through the People’s Way Partnership (PWP) that used a LightHawk flight from Missoula to Polson (and back) to get a fascinating bird’s-eye view of the 41 wildlife crossing structures that have been constructed along U.S. Highway 93.

That's me on the right, getting ready for takeoff! (©Kylie Paul, Defenders of Wildlife)

That’s me on the right, getting ready for takeoff! (©Kylie Paul, Defenders of Wildlife)

To give the public accurate and interesting information about the importance and effectiveness of the wildlife crossing structures, the PWP, comprised of Defenders of Wildlife, the CSKT, Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, and the Montana Department of Transportation was formed. The mission of the PWP is to effectively communicate the conservation and safety value of wildlife crossing structures along Highway 93. As part of the PWP, we hope our efforts to show people the value of these structures will lead to increased citizen, institutional, and governmental support for more sustainable highway practices throughout the United States and abroad.

LightHawk pilots provide flights as a tool to protect land, water and wildlife, and one of their highly-experienced volunteer pilots offered to donate this exciting educational tour in his six-passenger plane. PWP invited several important decision-makers to attend the flight to encourage them to incorporate wildlife concerns into transportation planning efforts in the future. The Montana Department of Transportation’s deputy director, CSKT’s biologist and director of communications, a research ecologist with Western Transportation Institute performing the wildlife monitoring, and a Montana newspaper reporter all joined me on the flight.

wildlife overpass

Wildlife overpass on US Hwy 93 (©Marcel Huijser, WTI)

Each year, millions of animals are killed along our roadways while moving across America’s fragmented landscapes. Research has shown that the most successful tool to reduce roadkill and increase connectivity across a highway is to add wildlife underpasses or overpasses, coupled with wildlife fencing that funnels animals to these crossing structures. Along a 56-mile stretch that cuts across the Flathead Indian Reservation, the Montana Department of Transportation, due to the leadership of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), built 41 fish and wildlife crossing structures, 16 miles of wildlife fencing, 58 jump outs that allow wildlife to escape if they get trapped inside the fences, and many wildlife crossing guards that make it difficult for animals to get on the highway from access roads.

This reconstruction project represents the most extensive wildlife-sensitive highway design effort in the United States to date, and since its start in 2006 it is already helping large numbers of wildlife move across the highway. More than 25 different species, ranging from grizzly bears to deer fawns to river otters to bushy-tailed woodrats, have been documented using the crossings (for photos, click here). In 2011, more than 22,000 pictures of animals were taken by motion-activated cameras at the crossings.

Stream beds are major wildlife movement corridors - a great place for wildlife underpasses. (©Kylie Paul, Defenders of Wildlife)

Stream beds are major wildlife movement corridors – a great place for wildlife underpasses. (©Kylie Paul, Defenders of Wildlife)

This is a good time to view the structures, as they have been in place long enough to have been monitored for several years. Meanwhile, an important stretch of the project has yet to be completed — a place where grizzly bears frequently cross the highway and turtle populations continually attempt to pass between ponds on either side of the highway. Fortunately, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) was signed into law by President Obama on July 6, 2012 and is the first highway authorization enacted since 2005. MAP-21 is the first national transportation law to weave throughout its programs authority for state, federal and tribal managers, and researchers to reduce the number of motorist collisions with wildlife and improve connectivity among habitats disrupted by roads. It funds surface transportation programs at over $105 billion for fiscal years 2013 and 2014. Hopefully these funds will help projects incorporate wildlife crossing structures like those on Highway 93.

During the flight, invited guests and PWP partners saw the landscape from a fantastic viewpoint, including my first glimpse of Montana’s innovative wildlife crossing structures from high above. We took many photographs that will help illustrate the utility of wildlife crossing structures on the landscape, the reporter wrote a newspaper article about the event, and most importantly, no one got (too) airsick! I call that a major success!

Wildlife underpasses help reconnect habitat that's been fragmented, like the forest on each side of this highway (©Marcel Huijser, WTI)

Wildlife underpasses help reconnect habitat that’s been fragmented, like the forest on each side of this highway (©Marcel Huijser, WTI)

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