August 18, 2016

Highway crossings in Florida benefit both wildlife and people

The summer travel season is well underway. Many vacationers are hitting the highways seeking summer adventure and a change of scenery. At the same time, wildlife is on the move, with animals searching for food, raising their young, and looking for new territory. But highways and wildlife don’t mix very well. Add in an automobile traveling speed of 70 mph or more amid distractions of mobile phones, music, and impatient children in the back seat, and the safety risk can become very high for both people and animals.

Wildlife Crossings are a Win-win

Studies have shown that large wide-ranging animals need to be able to move among the different populations of their species to preserve genetic diversity and health. With roads criss-crossing their habitats, many animals also have to put themselves at risk just to access food, water, or better habitat in which to raise their young. The importance of adding highway crossings for wildlife is growing nationwide as traffic engineers and the general public seek to improve human safety and protect wildlife.

Wildlife crossings such as overpasses, underpasses and bridge extensions with associated fencing are proven methods to prevent collisions with wildlife, and to help keep wildlife populations from becoming isolated from one another. They have been built across the continent, from Canada’s Banff National Park to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, to the impressive collection of crossings along Montana’s Highway 93.

Florida is a leader of such safety design and innovations, and was one of the first to adopt them. When State Road 84 was upgraded to Interstate 75 across the width of south Florida (a project that took from the 1970s to 1993), concern over the future of the critically endangered Florida panther prompted FDOT to include dozens of wildlife crossings along a 40-mile stretch between Fort Lauderdale and Naples. These crossings have nearly eliminated the death of panthers caused by vehicle strikes on that section of highway. Defenders is working to increase safe passage for our state animal on many other dangerous roadways. And today, projects to protect motorists and wildlife from vehicle collisions are underway in many areas across the country.

Making Room for Wildlife in Central Florida

In central Florida, crews are currently working to widen a stretch of Interstate 4, which runs between Daytona Beach through Orlando and on to Tampa Bay. Thousands of acres of undeveloped forest and wetlands flank this highway for most of the distance between Daytona Beach and Orlando. At Tiger Bay State Forest, a 27,300-acre Volusia County preserve straddles I-4. This forest and other lands along the interstate are part of a proposed vast wildlife corridor that stretches from the Everglades National Park through the Ocala National Forest to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southern Georgia, and beyond. Conservationists in both Florida and Georgia are diligently working to protect this corridor.

When planning the I-4 widening project, the Florida Department of Transportation consulted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, other agencies, organizations and academics. Engineers, biologists, and other experts examined the highway and adjacent habitat and identified natural corridor locations where underpasses would be helpful to allow for safe passage of wildlife. Our Florida team advocated for the crossings to be included, submitting comments and participating in public meetings. Now, as crews work to widen the road, they’re also building new wildlife crossings in key places to help black bears, Florida panthers, and other wildlife cross safely under the road.

Construction isn’t quite complete (the crossings are scheduled to be finished by the end of the summer), but bears have already been documented using the underpasses. Many other animals such as alligators, deer, bobcat, fox, raccoon and even smaller animals like rabbits, mice and turtles use them too.

Highways and roads are of course a reality across North America, with new roads and road expansion projects constantly under construction — particularly in fast growing areas in Florida and Arizona. But clearly there are ways to make our highways safer for both people and wildlife.

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