Animals get safe spots to cross the road — and car collisions drop | Science News

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Sarah Zielinski
Wild Things

Animals get safe spots to cross the road — and car collisions drop

pronghorn

After overpasses and underpasses for pronghorns and other wildlife were constructed on a highway in Wyoming, vehicle collisions with animals dropped precipitously, a new study reports.

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U.S. 191 is one of the driving options for people headed to Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Parks. But the road also cuts through prime territory for mule deer and pronghorns. And cars and large wildlife don’t usually mix well. When they do tangle, the cars end up heavily damaged, and the animals end up dead.

In an effort to reduce this conflict, the Wyoming Department of Transportation spent nearly $10 million to install two overpasses and six underpasses, along with deer-proof fencing, on sections of the highway near Daniel Junction in 2012. The sites for the passes were chosen based, in part, on the migration patterns of mule deer and pronghorns through the area.

Shortly after the installation, the animals were seen using the crossings, and vehicle collisions appeared to decline. The project was labeled a success. Now, an analysis of the project finds just how successful it has been: Car collisions with pronghorn have disappeared entirely and those with mule deer have dropped by 79 percent, Hall Sawyer of Western Ecosystems Technology Inc., and colleagues report May 16 in the Wildlife Society Bulletin.

Two digital cameras were installed at each overpass and one at each underpass to monitor wildlife using the crossings during the spring and fall migration periods in 2012 through 2015. Thousands of animals started using the pathways, and each year, more and more animals crossed the highway using these safe paths. Over the years, 40,251 mule deer and 19,290 pronghorn made their way through the passages.

Of the mule deer passing through, 79 percent used the underpasses. But among pronghorns, 92 percent took the overpasses. This confirms something that researchers had thought would be true but never really had any data to back up. They figured that ungulates such as pronghorns that live in open areas and are heavily reliant on vision to detect predators should prefer overpasses, because the structures would allow the animals to have better vision and movement. The new finding supports this, at least for pronghorns, and shows that building overpasses, which are more expensive than paths beneath highways, really is necessary for some animals.

This area of U.S. 191 was one of the worst for wildlife vehicle collisions before the crossings were built, averaging 85 per year from 2005 to 2012. By the third year after the installation, though, collisions had dropped to just 16 per year.

When the crossings were put in place, the Department of Transportation claimed that, by preventing vehicle collisions, the project would essentially pay for itself in 20 years. But this project has been so successful, the team calculates, that a crossing could pay for itself in just 4 years. And then, of course, there’s the benefit for the wildlife itself, which can now more easily and safely move through the landscape.

The team does note that Wyoming did have to make a few adjustments to the project to accommodate human behavior. The overpasses are edged with high berms to prevent animals from seeing the highway, but those berms proved tempting to ATV users and motorcyclists. Because this activity is damaging to vegetation and could reduce effectiveness of the crossings, the Bureau of Land Management had to post signs warning people away.

And when the crossings first went up, some canny hunters figured that the overpasses were good spots to find hundreds of pronghorn; hunting is now banned within 800 meters of a wildlife overpass. 

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