How does the wildlife cross the road?

Once a leader in wildlife crossings, Montana is now “stagnant,” despite having one of the highest rates of animal-vehicle collisions in the country. Could a federal spending proposal reinvigorate the state’s efforts?

During a Nov. 17 hear-
ing, Martha Williams

answered dozens of
questions you’d expect
an incoming director of the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service to field

from the Congressional com-
mittee considering her nomina-
tion. After she spoke about a life

“steeped in conservation,” the
Maryland farm she grew up on
and lessons she learned at the
helm of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife
and Parks Department, members
of the Senate Environment and
Public Works Committee grilled
Williams about climate change,
hunting on wildlife refuges and

the USFWS-administered Endan-
gered Species Act.

Then committee chair Tom
Carper, D-Delaware, presented

her with an unexpected ques-
tion: How had Williams’ expe-
rience with wildlife crossings in

Montana prepared her to help
implement a $350 million federal
pilot program that aims to reduce
wildlife-vehicle collisions and
increase habitat connectivity?

Williams described the pro-
gram, which was included in

the $1.2 trillion infrastructure
package Congress passed Nov. 5,
as “a big moment ... a long time
coming.” Adding some levity to
the conversation, she described
a video of a person sleeping in a

wildlife underpass on the Flat-
head Reservation, oblivious to a

grizzly bear sauntering by. Then

she circled back to the intersec-
tion of transportation and wildlife


“I can’t — we can’t — underes-
timate the importance of these

crossings for [motorist] safety, and
for wildlife,” she said. “Experience
shows that species use them, and
they help with safety.”
Williams was likely referencing
photos that circulated earlier 

this year of a near-encounter in
a culvert beneath U.S. Highway
93. Three photos, snapped by a
motion-sensitive game camera at
one-second intervals, show a bear
walking past a person lying next
to a backpack, looking over its
shoulder at the blanket-wrapped

form not 30 feet away, and am-
bling on.

Like 38 other crossing structures
on the Flathead Reservation, that

culvert was installed by the Mon-
tana Department of Transporta-
tion in the mid-to-late 2000s, a

high point in the state’s efforts to
make its transportation system
more wildlife-friendly. When the
project was underway, Montana
and the Confederated Salish and
Kootenai Tribes — which had

insisted that MDT mitigate wild-
life impacts on tribal land as part

of a highway-widening project
— were lauded by environmental
groups for being responsive to the
many ways roads impede wildlife
movement, restricting animals’

access to food, mates, new territo-
ry, and safe harbor from wildfire,

flooding and drought.
But Marcel Huijser, a research

ecologist with Montana State Uni-
versity’s Western Transportation

Institute, says the state has be-
come “quite stagnant” in the past

decade, and Montana is rarely
mentioned in recent stories about

wildlife crossings. Projects in Ne-
vada, Wyoming, Washington and

California are more likely to make
headlines. Now, the infrastructure
bill’s new $350 million wildlife
crossings allocation — the largest
investment of its kind in the
country’s history — has ecologists
like Huijser wondering if the
state will renew its efforts to help
wildlife safely cross Montana’s
Once a leader, now a
Montana roads currently contain
122 wildlife accommodations —
measures designed to mitigate the
impacts of roadways and traffic
on wildlife — according to MDT
Environmental Services Bureau
Chief Tom Martin. He said most
of those are underpasses, but
others include exclusionary fences
to deter wildlife from crossing a

particular stretch of road and veg-
etation removal to make wildlife

more visible to motorists.
Eighty-one of the state’s 122

wildlife accommodations are lo-
cated on U.S. Highway 93, which

traverses western Montana from
Eureka to Sula. About half of the
Highway 93 projects are located
on the Flathead Reservation, due

in no small part to the Confeder-
ated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’

insistence upon them. Back in the
1990s, tribal leaders told MDT
they wouldn’t grant easements

required for its highway-widen-
ing project unless MDT reduced

the roadway’s impact on wildlife.
With mediation help from the
Federal Highway Administration

the two sides reached an agree-
ment in 2000 premised on the

idea that “the road is a visitor and

... it should respond to and be re-
spectful of the land and the Spirit

of Place.” Researchers evaluated
potential crossing locations based
on wildlife crash frequency, local
knowledge of wildlife movements
and land availability for crossing

structures, and MDT started in-
stalling the 39 structures (mostly

culvert underpasses) in 2005. The
total cost of the crossings topped
$21 million, which was primarily

funded with Federal Highway Ad-
ministration dollars allocated to

MDT. A decade later, a half-dozen
studies have been done on their

One study based on 15 under-
passes found that 24 species of

animal used the crossings during
the study period. Huijser and his
co-authors found that deer were
most likely to use them, followed
by black bears and coyotes, but

other animals including bob-
cats, ring-necked pheasants and

racoons used them, too.Another
study conducted by Huijser found
that the most effective crossings
on Highway 93 reduced auto
crashes with wildlife by nearly
100%, and the least effective ones
(those lacking optimal placement,
design and fencing to encourage
animals to use them) improved
wildlife-vehicle crashes by about
Highway 93 is an outlier, though.
Elsewhere, Montana has generally

taken a more transportation-cen-
tric approach to mitigating roads’

impacts on wildlife, and it’s not a

great deal for animals — or mo-
torists faced with expensive vehi-
cle repairs. MDT’s current process

looks something like this, Martin
said: MDT identifies a section of
road that needs improvement,
whether that means repaving it,
widening it, or replacing a bridge
or guardrail, and staff biologists
evaluate the project’s potential to

negatively impact wildlife. The de-
partment then applies a cost-ben-
efit analysis to a range of potential

mitigation measures. Some are
implemented and others aren’t.
The most effective measures,
from a collision-prevention and
habitat-connectivity perspective,
also tend to carry the highest
price tags, which helps explain
why few have been built in the
state in the past decade. Building
a bridge over a highway sturdy
enough to accommodate the soil
and vegetation that encourage

animals to use it is a spendy prop-
osition, Martin says. Overpasses

cost between $1 million and $7
million, and underpasses range
from $250,000 to $600,000. To

work well, researchers are learn-
ing, the structures often require

8-foot fences up to 3 miles long to
steer wildlife into the crossings,
and those fences come with a
price tag, too — about $50,000
per mile.
Martin said MDT’s ability to
install wildlife crossings in the
past decade has been limited by
the state’s funding model. The vast
majority of Montana’s highway
improvement dollars come from

federal coffers, and the remain-
der, about 13%, comes from the

state’s gasoline tax, Martin said.
As a result, MDT’s strategy has
been to prioritize projects that
align closely with federal funding
opportunities, which have tended
to prioritize public safety concerns
over wildlife. Wildlife-vehicle

crashes in Montana may be fre-
quent — Montana is second only

to West Virginia for the likelihood

a driver will hit an animal, accord-
ing to data collected by insurance

company State Farm — but they’re
rarely fatal, for people anyway.
“The more severe the safety
[concern], the easier it is to fund
a project,” Martin said. “They get

What gets road ecologists like
Rob Ament, Huijser’s colleague
at the Western Transportation
Institute, so excited about the

new allocation for wildlife cross-
ings in Congress’ infrastructure

package is the fact that applicants
like cities, counties, states, and
tribes won’t have to compete for
funding with bridges that need
to be replaced or interstates that
need resurfacing.
“That’s why I think the new bill
is a watershed [moment],” Ament
Huijser says that apart from
public safety, there are plenty of
reasons, economic and otherwise,
to invest in wildlife crossings.
Although crossing structures
are expensive, Ament said the
investment pencils out when
transportation planners consider
the costs associated with crashes
in high-collision zones. (Between

vehicle towing and repair, medi-
cal costs, carcass pick-up and the

animal’s estimated value alive,
the average deer collision costs
more than $6,700, and larger
animals result in higher costs,
according to a 2008 report to

From a biological perspective,
a paper Huijser co-authored on
Highway 93’s crossing structures
describes roads as “one of the

largest, most direct impacts hu-
mans have on ecosystems.” Roads

and associated rights-of-way
degrade potential wildlife habitat,
disturb soil and hydrology, invite
colonization by invasive species
and can contribute to inbreeding,

which has negative consequenc-
es for a species’ genetic health.

Crossings can’t mitigate all of
those impacts, but Huijser says

they’re one of the best tools trans-
portation planners have, and he’d

like to see Montana doing more.
“With some exceptions — but

they are really quite old — Mon-
tana has been quite stagnant” on

the wildlife-crossing front, he
said. “Given the size of our state,
the natural resources we have,
I would have expected us to be
doing more over the last decade.”
Part II of this series will focus on

a neighboring state that has estab-
lished itself as a leader in wildlife

crossing initiatives.

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