“One of the sad facts of the modern world is that humans are a nightmare for non-human animals. This is manifested in many ways, but one of the most devastating is how voraciously we gobble up wildlife habitat to suit our own needs.”
~ Melissa Breyer
It was dark and my headlights had just picked out the several elk ahead standing behind the guardrail by the road when one climbed/jumped over into the lane in front of me. The combination of me braking and it running across the road kept me from hitting it, but in my rearview mirror I saw several more make the crossing, too.
We stopped and called the police to tell them that the elk herd was crossing the four-lane highway again and to get someone out there to warn the drivers. This wasn’t somewhere out in the wilds, but in my small town on the edge of a metropolitan area where the golf course bounded one side of the road and residential housing the other. The elk herd came down from the nearby mountains to browse the local lawns and gardens, and of course, the fairways and greens.
Recently, the highway department installed wildlife crossings at several places along that highway, including pedestrian-style crosshatching and automatic warning lights. The fencing was improved and one-way ramps installed to allow trapped animals to leave the roadway. Vehicle-animal collisions are now very rare along that section of the highway — to the benefit of drivers as well as the animals.
It has always seemed to me that we humans don’t really think about what we are doing. If we see there’s a nice place, we just decide to take it over. If we’ve got the superior force or will, we go in, eliminate the things we don’t particularly like or that don’t particularly serve us. We fail to recognize that someone, or somethings, might have prior rights to that place. (Obviously, indigenous human populations understand this with painful clarity.)
We also exacerbate the problem when we deplete the resources that the native occupants utilized and even introduce more appealing resources. We eradicated the buffalo, but replaced them with slow and stupid cattle, easy pickings; then got mad when the Native Americans helped themselves. Or we build subdivisions out in the prairies, then complain that the coyotes eat our cats and small dogs.
Elk spend part of the spring and summer in the mountain forests, then congregate in the lower grasslands in winter. Locally, we’ve made some inroads on development in the forests, but have totally taken over the grasslands in the valley. However, we apparently created a perfect giant grassland (all eighteen holes) just to accommodate the elk.
Some places have gone even further to accommodate the needs and safety of local wildlife. According to reporter Starre Varta, “There’s one solution, however, that’s been remarkably effective around the world in decreasing collisions between cars and animals crossing the road: wildlife under- and overpasses.”
Unlike our local remedy, the mechanism to separate vehicular from animal traffic involves major construction. Basically, you build a bridge to take the automobile traffic over the animal pathways or a bridge to take the animals over the road. In both cases, a major issue is being able to direct the animals on the correct pathway. This may involve fences, creative design and very selective native vegetation.
The crossings are important to traffic safety, but also to the health of the animal species. Varta quotes Patty Garvey-Darda, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service “Localized extinction happens when populations can’t find each other, and if they don’t have genetic variability, they will blink out — especially low-mobility species in old-growth [forest].” So eliminating the disruption of dependent habitat by bridging a highway not only keeps individual animals alive, it allows species to thrive.
Experience with highway crossings across the North America has shown success with a variety of large and small animals, including deer, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, grizzly and black bears, mountain lions, Florida panthers, coyotes, wolverines, lynx, wolves, fishers, pika, shrews, voles and jumping mice. By reconnecting waterways and wetlands, the crossings can help to connect isolated populations of aquatic animals, such as bull trout, salamanders and other reptiles. Alternately, arid area crossings have been helpful for desert tortoises.
Other animals are also affected by highways as reported by Melissa Breyer: “Now you wouldn’t think that flying animals would have a problem with roads, but as it turns out, some bats do. Not with the roads themselves, but with the street lights. Which is why certain areas (in Europe and the UK) are erecting “bat highways,” in which white lights are replaced with bat-friendly red ones.”
It seems that nature will willingly coexist with us, if we just give it a chance and work together. But we’ve got to help.
“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.”
Melissa Breyer, The UK Is Getting Its First Bat Highway!, September 3, 2019, TreeHugger Daily News
Starre Varta, How Wildlife Bridges Over Highways Make Animals — And People — Safer, April 16, 2019, National Geographic Magazine