How Wildlife Corridors in the Southeast Illustrate Collaboration 

Walking into an ongoing historic effort can be daunting, but the opportunity to be part of it fills me with an intense sense of pride. I began my Defenders of Wildlife internship attending the Safe Passage coalition meeting last fall. There, I was introduced to the enormous bi-state, multiagency effort to improve the livelihood of people and animals travelling through the Pigeon River Gorge. We discussed a series of projects that should one day become one of most important wildlife crossings along the Eastern Wildway, which is a collection of wildlife migration corridors spanning from southern Florida into Canada and encompassing the entire Appalachian Mountain range.  

2024.02.15 - NC - Safe Passage - Steven Goodman/NPCA
Image Credit
Steven Goodman/NPCA
This wildlife underpass in the Pigeon River Gorge gives crossing animals several options for how they wish to travel through the area. 

As a graduate student studying public affairs and administration, I have read case studies and articles on multi-agency collaborative efforts like this one. Witnessing the work of Safe Passage is like witnessing these studies leap off the pages of my textbooks. It’s incredible to participate in turning these ideas into reality. Plus, it’s thrilling to be involved with a group of people who care deeply about the preservation of our wild places and possess the knowledge and expertise to take action to protect them. 

Building Bridges (and Underpasses) for Wildlife 

Safe Passage is working to connect two massive pieces of public land separated by Interstate 40 through a 28-mile stretch of the Pigeon River Gorge in North Carolina and Tennessee. Every day, rain or shine, elk, white tail deer, black bears, bobcats, raccoons, opossums and many other animals make a perilous journey across the highway in search of food, mates and habitat. This is not only a perilous journey for the animals but also a risk to drivers. Across the U.S., an estimated 1.25 million insurance claims are filed annually due to animal strikes involving deer, elk, or other large ungulates. Many of these claims involve injury or death to the animal, driver and passengers. 

2018.9.24 - SE Recovery Area Trail Cam - Bear with bear cub walking through frame from right to left - Wildlands Network
Image Credit
Wildlands Network
Black bears are one of several species that utilize wildlife crossings in North Carolina and Tennessee to cross highways in search of food, mates and habitat.

The fantastic news is there is a proven solution: wildlife crossings. Though many of the crossings on the East Coast look different than those found in the West, the lessons learned are similar. In fact, following the coalition meeting I attended last fall, we held a public viewing of Cascades Crossroads, a film that explores wildlife crossing projects in the Snoqualmie Pass of Washington's Cascade Mountains. 

The even better news is wildlife crossing efforts are currently underway in the Pigeon River Gorge. One bridge underpass project reconnecting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Pisgah National Forest has already been completed and two more are under construction. Additionally, during its last session, the North Carolina General Assembly appropriated $2 million in funding for wildlife crossing infrastructure in this area. 

Join Southeast Program Director Ben Prater and Senior Southeast Representative Tracy Davids for a visit to the wildlife underpass at the Harmon Den exit in the Pigeon River Gorge. This wildlife crossing showcases how effective these efforts can be when state wildlife, transportation and engineering experts work together. 

A Collaborative Effort 

The scale and passion for collaboration within this work are astounding. The Safe Passage coalition is comprised of nearly 100 individuals from over 20 state, private and nonprofit organizations. It includes Department of Transportation leaders from North Carolina and Tennessee, wildlife biologists from state and federal agencies, nonprofit conservation advocates, Indigenous representatives and members of the public. 

These aren’t just hollow showings of support. At the fall meeting, a productive discussion determined how to spend state allocated funding to increase awareness and garner additional support from unreached communities. Wildlife biologists also provided keen insight into what’s happening on the ground at crossing areas in the gorge. 

Safe Passage Coalition Presentation group shot - Harrison Thweatt
Image Credit
Harrison Thweatt
The Safe Passage coalition met in person last fall to discuss a series of projects and how to best allocate funding.

The Safe Passage outreach committee, which my internship supervisor and Defenders’ senior Southeast representative Tracy Davids chairs, is getting the word out about this project as well. The committee produces and distributes educational materials, hosts community engagement events, creates online communications and a newsletter, conducts presentations, solicits business support and garners news media attention about the project to spur more support on both sides of the Tennessee-North Carolina line. 

Crossing into the Future 

Safe Passage’s work gives me hope in an increasingly industrialized world that there are people and groups who wish to see the balance between progress and nature restored. This project is just one example of how conscious stewards of our wild places can be part of creating that balance.  

You can take the Safe Passage Pledge to understand the issue and learn how you can make an impact on your everyday driving and living habits. For example, follow speed limits and keep a sharp eye out for wildlife as you drive. No matter what your passage home looks like, we can all work together to make our journeys safer for our families and wildlife. 


This blog was written by Harrison Thweatt, Southeast Program 2024 Spring intern.


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