By Brianna Stephans, Summer Intern, Southeast Team
Roadkill—it’s never a pretty sight. Vehicle collisions with wildlife are a terrible experience for the driver and the animal. Not only do more than 1 million large animals die from collisions annually in the U.S., but the price tag for these collisions is a whopping $12 billion. With our growing human population coupled with climate change and habitat loss, we can expect more wildlife-vehicle collisions from animals crossing terrain and roads in search of food and mates. In doing so, wildlife will come across obstacles to get from one place to the next, such as this mama bear and her cubs attempting to cross I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge near the North Carolina-Tennessee border.
Luckily, wildlife-vehicle collisions are preventable. The Safe Passage Coalition, made up of 20 local, state, federal and Tribal land managers, and conservation organizations, works together to develop ways to mitigate these collisions, improve land connectivity to wildlife, and increase public awareness and safe driving methods. The coalition is currently working on the I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project, which was the subject of the hands-on presentation I helped prepare and deliver at the Asheville Museum of Science (AMOS) this summer.
Along with Ben Prater, Southeast program director, and Tracy Davids, Southeast program coordinator, I had the honor of hosting a presentation about the Smokies Safe Passage project and the wildlife it seeks to protect at AMOS as part of their summer STEM program. Our main objective was to further spread the word to people about the goals and mission of the project and why it is important. This was my first community engagement event as an intern for Defenders, so I was pretty excited! After setting up our space in the STEM lab, Ben and Tracy delivered a slide presentation on the Safe Passage Project, the animals involved, why it is important to support projects like these, and some solutions to prevent wildlife-vehicle collisions. Among these solutions are wildlife overpasses/underpasses, retrofitting existing structures and fencing for either funneling animals to safe passage or excluding them from the roadways.
The other half of the event was designed to allow guests to explore and participate in several activity stations geared to people of all ages. Ben’s station showcased life-sized replicas of track prints, scat and skulls, as well as the pelts of four different predator species: the American black bear, Red Wolf, coyote and puma.
As for my table, I had some resin molds of various animal tracks for guests to view, including the front footprint of the black bear, Red Wolf, coyote, red fox, bobcat, raccoon and elk. I also had an animal track matching game at my station that the kids could play. All players received a Defenders sticker; however, anyone who got all the answers correct won a polar bear plushie. The tracks in the game were tracks of animals one might see in the area of the Safe Passage Project and included bobcat, coyote, turkey, river otter, elk, rabbit, black bear and duck. Finally, Tracy’s station engaged children and adults with wildlife coloring sheets. Everyone learned something and had a great time, including me.
I enjoyed this wildlife outreach experience with Defenders of Wildlife. Getting to see AMOS, which is just down the street from our field office, was a cool experience and I am very grateful to them for sponsoring this event. The Asheville Museum of Science is a huge help in raising awareness about local wildlife and some of the challenges they face, and I’m glad we were able to collaborate with them to share our love for wildlife and their ecosystems.
For more information on future educational events, please get in touch with Tracy Davids at email@example.com and join the Carolinas Facebook group to stay up to date on these events.