Black bear, © CSKT, MDT & WTI-MSU

Building Bridges for Wildlife

Imagine you’re a bear. You’ve spent most of your life ambling through the forest, munching on green plants and scrumptious insects, taking care of your family, just minding your own business. Then one day you decide you want to scout out better berry bushes on the other side of the valley and…WHAMMO! You’re roadkill.

A black bear sow and her cubs make their way through a wildlife passage…

Welcome to the world of wildlife and roads. Each year, millions of animals are killed along our roadways while moving across America’s fragmented landscape. Many species cover considerable distances to reach their winter range, breeding grounds, watering holes, seasonal food sources and the like. To do so, they must navigate a perilous maze of roads, human settlements, and other human-influenced challenges.

So what can people do to help wildlife through the barriers we have put in their way? There are many approaches taken to try to reduce animal-vehicle collisions, including better driver education, improved signage, reduced speed limits, and many other possibilities. Yet research has shown that the most successful tool to reduce roadkill and increase connectivity across a highway is to add a wildlife underpass (tunnel) or overpass (bridge), coupled with wildlife fencing that funnels an animal into these structures.

This is just what has been built not far from my community in northwestern Montana starting in 2006. Along a 56-mile stretch of highway that cuts across the Flathead Indian Reservation, the Montana Department of Transportation, due to the leadership of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, built 41 fish and wildlife crossing structures, 16 miles of wildlife fencing, 58 jump-outs (opportunities for wildlife to jump out of the fenced roadway if they get stuck there), and many wildlife crossing guards (think cattle guards for wildlife to deter access onto the highway at driveway entrances).

Defenders of Wildlife has been helping to spread the word about the value of these tools through the People’s Way Partnership, in cooperation with the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, and Montana Department of Transportation. The partnership came together to give the public accurate and interesting information about the importance and effectiveness of the wildlife crossings. We get the word out by talking to local communities and kids, providing posters and brochures and a website, and sharing the multitude of photos taken by motion-activated cameras documenting numerous species using the structures. We’ve also held a fantastically fun and successful Safe Passages for Wildlife Art Contest, where we gave presentations to over 950 students on the Flathead Indian Reservation and Missoula, who then gave us the gift of magical posters related to wildlife and the structures.