The Safe Passage Fund Coalition has officially launched the I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project.
If funded, the project aims to create animal bridges, wildlife overpasses and underpasses along 28 miles of I-40 along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
The I-40 interstate is located just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
According to the SmokiesSafePassage.org, 26,000 vehicles pass through the 28-mile stretch of highway in the Pigeon River Gorge daily. And wildlife-vehicle collision costs add up to $12 billion in the U.S. annually.
National Geographic estimates that the average cost of a deer-vehicle collision runs at about $8,190. An elk-related collision can cost upwards of $25,319.
The goal of the project would be to provide safe passage to wildlife and reduce costly animal-related crashes along the heavily trafficked stretch of road.
Fencing would also be installed to help guide the wildlife across the bridge.
Do animal bridges and wildlife crossings actually work?
Building animal bridges and wildlife crossings isn’t a new concept.
The earliest recorded man-made animal bridge was erected in France in the 1950s. And since then, they’ve been cropping up all over the globe.
Arizona has installed over a dozen underpasses and overpasses near Flagstaff and Payson for their elk and bighorn sheep since the early 2000s.
According to AZCentral, the multi-million dollar project successfully reduced elk-vehicle collisions by 90 percent.
These findings are consistent with SmokiesSafePassage.org’s calculations that wildlife crossing structures have been shown to reduce motorist collisions involving wildlife by up to 97 percent.
A lack of crossing opportunities may also lead to habitat destruction and fragmentation
Black bears, elk and other seasonal breeders and foragers naturally roam to seek out feeding and mating opportunities.
Roadways often create barriers for these animals to behave and roam in a natural way.
Choosing not to cross a busy roadway may lead to the death or destruction of an entire population of animals. But choosing to cross may result in the death of the individual animal that takes the crossing risk.
Tennessee and North Carolina’s Departments of Transportation are currently working with Steve Goodman (a Volgenau Wildlife Research Fellow with the National Parks Conservation Association) and Dr. Liz Hillard (a wildlife scientist with Wildlands Network) to conduct field research.
Their work includes evaluations of roadways just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and how they influence the habits of black bears, white-tailed deer, elk and other native species.
According to the website, their research aims to:
- Assess wildlife use of existing structures
- Assess wildlife road mortality
- Assess wildlife activity within the highway right-of-way
- Identify and predict elk road crossing locations using movement information from GPS-collared elk
Studies will also likely be done to determine what the bridge will look like for maximum efficacy as different species of animals seem to prefer different styles of overpasses.
For instance, elk and deer prefer large open structures that resemble meadows. Black bears tend to prefer smaller more constricted crossings with cover.
How is this project currently being funded?
The Wildlands Network is serving as the fiscal sponsor for the Safe Passage Fund. The coalition is also currently accepting public donations on their website.
If funded, the project will take a number of years to complete, meaning that it might be quite some time before we see these structures popping up in the Smokies.
What do you think about the wildlife crossing animal bridge proposal in the Smokies? Let us know in the comments!