Each spring, millions of animals in the American West, such as elk, pronghorn and mule deer, travel from their winter habitats to a cooler, more lush summer habitat to fatten up before the fall. Then, when snow begins to fall at high elevations, they return to warmer, lower elevations to await winter. These wildlife migrations can span hundreds of miles as animals migrate through valleys and mountains over the course of weeks or even months. The routes they follow, called wildlife migration corridors, are passed down from generation to generation.
But many of these ancient corridors have been interrupted or otherwise fragmented by busy roads and highways. And that’s a loss to motorists and wildlife alike: According to a report by the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 1 million animal-vehicle collisions occur in the U.S. each year, killing tens of thousands of people and countless animals. injured.
Historically, transportation officials had few tools to address this problem other than installing signage warning drivers of the potential for animals on the road, a strategy that has done little to reduce the number or frequency of accidents.
But good news is on the way. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 — passed Congress on Nov. 5 and President Joe Biden signed into law on Nov. 15 — establishes a wildlife crossing safety program that will fund much more strategic infrastructure than just road signs. The law provides for a five-year period of $350 million in competitive subsidies to municipalities, states and tribes to build bridges, tunnels, culverts, fences and other infrastructure that will allow wildlife to pass safely under and below the surface. consider. Such projects, which some states have begun implementing in recent years, have been proven to reduce collisions between wildlife and vehicles, reduce human injuries and deaths, and improve the health of wildlife populations. Some of these constructions have reduced the number of collisions by more than 80%.
In the American West, solutions are needed on many road sections. In western Colorado, a stretch of US Highway 550 near Billy Creek Wildlife Area is notorious for road accidents and sometimes major crashes that kill or injure motorists. The same is true along part of US Highway 26/287 between Riverton and Dubois in Wyoming, and on US Highway 20 in eastern Oregon, where the Burns Paiute tribe is working toward a solution.
The first portion of funding for this program — $60 million — will be distributed in the current fiscal year as competitive grants to deserving projects. Before the money goes out, however, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) must develop guidelines for the grant program, including providing details on things like project eligibility and accountability measures. For example, how are subsidy applications assessed for their impact on collision reduction or improving habitat connectivity? What is the expected lifespan of nature infrastructure? What are the expected maintenance needs? Will applicants benefit from using new technologies that save money and speed up construction? These and other questions must be answered by the DOT during the public program implementation process.
Pew looks forward to working with agency officials, wildlife and highway safety experts, and transportation and infrastructure specialists to ensure a timely and efficient implementation of the wildlife crossing program and to help grant applicants navigate through them. The law could deliver a huge return on investment by making roads safer and wildlife populations healthier across the American West.
Matt Skroch is a project director and Tom St. Hilaire is a senior officer on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ US Public Land and River Conservation Project.