-Laura Lundquist reporting for the Missoula Current
MISSOULA – More structures like the Animals Bridge on Highway 93 north of Missoula are needed to help wildlife safely cross Montana roadways. But hunters and wildlife advocates say federal funding is needed to overcome high construction costs.
As the U.S. Senate considers the budget for the 2020 Highway Bill, conservation and sportsmen’s groups are lobbying hard for a small pot of money to be set aside just for animal-crossing structures. If they get it, it will be the first time that Congress will have made wildlife crossings a priority.
“We had a 30-plus-organization letter that went up to the committee leadership, and within that letter, we requested at least $50 million be included for a new program specifically dedicated to wildlife crossings,” said Christy Plumer, TRCP chief conservation officer. “We ideally would love to see something upwards of $100 million annually. These projects are expensive but they’re vital.”
The April 8 letter – addressed to Sen. John Barraso (R-WY), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and a few other ranking committee members – asked the committee to put emphasis on “resilient highway systems” that address wildlife habitat and migration connectivity as well as reduce wildlife-vehicle collision risks.
“While the number of vehicle collisions has roughly stayed constant, vehicle-wildlife collisions have increased. Based on this trend, and the success of interventions to address these accidents, we recommend the addition of wildlife crossings to the list of eligible activities under the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program and a new Innovation Fund for Fish and Wildlife Connectivity,” the letter said.
Canada’s Banff National Park was one of the first areas to install a series of wildlife crossings, from culverts and tunnels under roads to the more massive overpasses that allow big game animals and grizzly bears to move more freely.
Montana wasn’t far behind, thanks to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. When the state decided to widen Highway 93 North a decade ago, the CSKT insisted that the project include 41 wildlife crossings plus the Animals’ Bridge.
It’s made a difference with significantly fewer animal-vehicle collisions on the highway. Between 2010 and 2015, biologists documented more than 95,000 animals using the structures, including 30 grizzly bears.
But there’s still a 10-mile stretch north of St. Ignatius that has yet to be widened. One of the hurdles is coming up with money for the roadwork, let alone any wildlife crossings.
But there’s a growing block of support for wildlife structures, not only on the Flathead Reservation but also on Interstate 90, Interstate 15 and even some smaller state highways such as Highway 200 where the traffic can at times be almost nonstop.
In December, more than 150 representatives of agencies and nonprofit organizations met at Montana’s first Wildlife and Transportation Summit to figure out how to pay for wildlife crossings.
But that’s where the 2020 Highway bill could come in.
Based on some of the signals she’s getting from Senate committee members, Plumer said she gives wildlife crossing funding a 75 to 80 percent chance of being included in the bill. The Senate committee could be considering this as early as its Aug. 1 meeting.
“They’re taking a hard look at this. The chairman mentioned he is supportive in terms of looking at opportunities for providing some new authority or some new funding for highway crossings,” Plumer said.
Miles Morretti, Mule Deer Foundation CEO, said his members have been talking to Interior Sec. David Berhardt, asking him to talk to the committee members.
He recalled that former Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke signed a 2018 Secretarial Order emphasizing the importance of preserving wildlife migration corridors, and highway crossings are essential for long-distance migrations of mule deer, elk and pronghorn antelope.
The Western Governors’ Association followed with its own resolution in June 2019 encouraging state and federal agencies to work together to identify and protect regions that wildlife use as migratory corridors.
The WGA issued the resolution knowing that the current highway bill has almost expired. Just like the 30-plus organizations that sent the letter, the governors want wildlife structures and migration corridors to receive more attention.
Morretti said it doesn’t hurt that some of the more recent wildlife crossing projects in Colorado, Utah and Washington state have been so successful, saving both human and animal lives and saving billions in insurance claims. But even with a lot support, projects can fall prey to Congressional politics.
“I see all around, we’re getting a lot of positive feedback,” Morretti said. “But as you know, it’s sometimes hard to separate out funding or ask for dedicated funding for certain projects.”