Kylie Paul, Rockies and Plains Representative
The Flathead Indian Reservation in northwest Montana is home to an abundance of wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, peregrine falcons, elk, bighorn sheep, fisher, lynx and wolverine. But a busy U.S. highway cuts through the reservation, and has long been a source of vehicle collisions dangerous to both humans and wildlife. Thankfully, in the last several years, the highway underwent a major construction effort that includes an impressive 41 wildlife crossing structures and 16.6 miles of wildlife fencing — all on a 56-mile segment of highway! These structures aim to make drivers and animals safer by reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions. They also help keep habitats and populations connected by providing opportunities for wildlife to cross the highway safely using underpasses. There’s even an overpass specifically designed for grizzly bears.
This progressive step toward mitigating the highway impacts to wildlife did not occur overnight, nor was it a typical approach for the transportation department. In fact, it came after more than 10 years of disagreement. And the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) who live on and govern the Flathead Indian Reservation were a driving force that led to such consideration of wildlife in the highway reconstruction.
In the 1990s, the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) proposed widening U.S. Highway 93 through the Reservation. Tribal members were concerned about the impact that the expansion could have on their landscape, culture and natural resources. They insisted that the new design that takes the wellbeing of wildlife into account. CSKT and MDT could not reach an agreement for several years. Then, in March of 2000, the Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) met with both parties and they all eventually identified the need to take an approach that recognized the “Spirit of Place” — the landscape, water, plants, animals and native people. The design of the roadway needed to incorporate the idea that the road is a visitor, and should respond to and be respectful of the land and how the CSKT people relate to it. In December of 2000, the CSKT, MDT and FHWA signed a memorandum of agreement for this project that included measures to mitigate the road’s impacts to wildlife and other natural processes, and to improve human safety through a reduction in wildlife-vehicle collisions.
Now, after CSKT defended their beliefs to help wildlife coexist in their landscape, insisting that highway planners incorporate safe passage for wildlife, U.S. 93 North contains more wildlife crossing structures than any other continuous stretch of highway in North America!
Despite the magnitude of this initiative, it seemed that most people throughout the region weren’t fully aware of it. Most knew that a big wildlife bridge over the road was constructed, but were unaware of the 40 other wildlife crossing structures they were driving over in the form of underpasses or tunnels. And these structures aren’t just sitting there — researchers in 2010 recorded more than 12,000 wildlife crossing events in the structures by more than 20 species!
To gain support for projects like this one and encourage more of them across Montana and the rest of the country, the need for outreach was obvious, so the tribes joined forces with Defenders of Wildlife, MDT and researchers at the Western Transportation Institute, and the People’s Way Partnership was born. Defenders’ role has been to coordinate and help find funding for the Partnership’s outreach efforts, such as presentations to students, organizations, agencies and the public; a student poster drawing contest; brochures; outreach posters and more. Our involvement with the tribes and the Partnership has been successful and rewarding, and we look forward to continuing our outreach efforts to increase support for more sustainable highway practices for wildlife throughout the West and the United States.