April 20, 2021
Frances Figart

Spring is an exciting time in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Temperatures are rising, wildflowers are blooming, and—for myriad reasons—wildlife is on the move. But humans are also on the go, and wildlife-vehicle collisions are a reality here, as in many places across the globe. 

Roadkill has reached a tipping point in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, where some 1,900 black bears as well as a herd of nearly 200 elk now move back and forth across the boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, seeking mates, food and shelter. To do so, they often face tough decisions: where, when and how to cross Interstate 40 in Pigeon River Gorge. 

Bear and cubs standing at guardrail
Bridget Donaldson/Virginia Transportation Research Council
Symbolic of the risk-reward situation that bears must face when there is a critical need for them to search for food, security, dispersal or breeding, a female bear looks for the best opportunity to cross as her cubs surround her at the guardrail on I-64 in Virginia near the top of Afton Mountain where the Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway meet.

From September 2018 to December 2020, researchers tallied 140 megafauna—elk, bear, and deer—dead along the highway in the Pigeon River Gorge study area. And they think this is just the tip of the iceberg, as many animals hit on roads die far from the right-of-way and are never discovered.

Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project is addressing the issue. It’s a collection of nearly 20 federal, state, Tribal and non-governmental organizations specifically working to make this perilous stretch of highway—20 miles in North Carolina and eight miles in Tennessee—safer for wildlife and drivers. 

Pigeon River Gorge
Jake Faber and Southwings
Interstate 40 was built in 1968. Like hundreds of roads that now crisscross the Southeast, it sliced through a mountain landscape where for millennia animals had freely followed ancient wildlife corridors. Back in the ’60s, there were fewer vehicles and fewer animals. Today some 27,000 cars and trucks travel this road while, not far away, some of the park’s 1,900 black bears are searching for food, mates, and shelter, which leads them to traverse the mosaic of wild, steep, and rugged public and private lands that make up the gorge.

The Safe Passage Fund Coalition —comprised of The Conservation Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, Great Smoky Mountains Association, National Parks Conservation Association, North Carolina Wildlife Federation and Wildlands Network—enables the public to donate and lend support for future wildlife crossings between Asheville and Knoxville. For National Parks Week and Earth Day 2021, they are asking wildlife lovers to “help them cross” by watching and sharing this video by Mark Wilson and visiting SmokiesSafePasssage.org to learn more about the project and take the Safe Passage Pledge. 

The Safe Passage Pledge has four simple components.

Observe the speed limit.

“Perhaps the single most important thing you can do to help wildlife, no matter where you are, is to observe the speed limit,” says Ben Prater, Southeast program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “That's because driving a slower speed gives you more time to brake safely if an animal runs out into the road in front of you. It's a very simple, effective solution that can keep wildlife and people safe.”

Deer and underpass
National Parks Conservation Association and Wildlands Network
A female white-tailed deer seeks safe passage by traveling under a bridge in the Pigeon River Gorge section of Interstate 40. More crossing options are needed here.
Be vigilant for wildlife entering the roadway.

A recent study determined that more than 90 percent of male black bears and 50 percent of female black bears regularly travel out of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to access other habitats. This inevitably means they have to cross regional highways as well as secondary roads.

Tim Gestwicki, CEO of North Carolina Wildlife Federation says, “Spring is a time when all kinds of wildlife are moving along roads and can dart out unexpectedly. New, denser foliage prevents drivers from having the expected long-range views of the right-of-way. Young mammals like fawns and fox kits are inexperienced and just starting to learn from their mothers about life and roads. They will seek grasses and berries along edge habitat and, before you know it, an animal can be right in front of your vehicle. It’s a time to be watchful, wary and wily.”

Bear exiting culvert
National Parks Conservation Association and Wildlands Network
In the 1970s, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park bear population was estimated to be around 300–400 park wide. Today that number has more than quadrupled with an estimate of 1,900 individual bears in the park.
Secure food and trash in bear-resistant containers.

Animals often travel because they are seeking food. When bears in particular have gotten a taste of human food—by accessing trash containers or being fed by people wanting to see them up close—they quickly become conditioned to it and want more. This is especially true for black bears during years when it’s hard to get enough of their own natural food: acorns. 

“Bears are omnivores with a keen sense of smell,” says Bill Holman, North Carolina’s state director of The Conservation Fund. “They will travel miles through the forest and across roads for a tasty meal. It’s important to secure food and trash in bear-resistant containers to reduce collisions with vehicles and conflicts with people.”

Bobcat in culvert under I-40
National Parks Conservation Association and Wildlands Network
A bobcat utilizes a round culvert (installed to move water, not wildlife) to navigate under Interstate 40 in Tennessee, demonstrating that if structures providing safe passage are available, animals will use them.
Teach others the importance of doing the same.

Perhaps one of the most important things we all can do for wildlife is to share their plight and educate others about how best to protect them from harm. A new book from Great Smoky Mountains Association, A Search for Safe Passage, teaches youth and their parents about the importance of wildlife crossings through an endearing story about animal friends as well as an educational primer on wildlife and road ecology. Geared for ages 7-13, the book can be purchased at SmokiesInformation.org

“National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) is working with middle school students in Tennessee and North Carolina to teach them about our efforts to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and reconnect fragmented landscapes,” says Jeff Hunter, senior program manager for NPCA. “These young people are inheriting the challenges associated with climate change. They are our future drivers, leaders, highway engineers, wildlife biologists, park managers, writers and advocates who will need to protect America’s national parks and the wildlife both inside and outside the park boundary.”

Aerial view of I-40.
Southwings
Aerial view of I-40.

How you can help

Share this video, follow Safe Passage on Facebook and Instagram, share posts, sign up for the Safe Passage eNewsletter—and encourage your friends to do the same. Learn more and take the Safe Passage Pledge at SmokiesSafePassage.org.

Author(s)

Image
Frances Figart headshot

Frances Figart

Editor, Smokies Life magazine and Creative Services Director, Great Smoky Mountains Association
Frances Figart (Fié-gert) directs the Creative Services department at Great Smoky Mountains Association and edits Smokies Life magazine, the premier benefit for GSMA members. She is the editor of the 2019 GSMA title, Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography, which won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award that same year. Her background includes editing the monthly magazine for the National Tour Association, editing popular arts and culture monthly The Laurel of Asheville, and providing marketing and communications for a kayak ecotour operator in Canada and Costa Rica. She authored the 2016 title Seasons of Letting Go: Most of what I know about truly living I learned by helping someone die and her new book, A Search for Safe Passage, was just published by Great Smoky Mountains Association and is being distributed by Ingram. It follows a group of animal friends in a Southern Appalachian gorge banding together to find a safe way across a major highway.
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