How a fiscally conservative state with a wildlife-oriented culture has emerged as a leader in efforts to make roads safer for animals and motorists
Road ecologists say wildlife crossings are one of the best ways to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and mitigate one of the most significant human impacts on ecosystems. This three-part series examines regional crossing initiatives as the federal government prepares to implement a $350 million pilot project — the largest investment of its kind in U.S. history. This is Part 2 of the series. Part 1 was published on Jan. 20, 2022, page A1.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department isn’t a an organization you’d necessarily expect to produce viral social media content, but a video unassumingly titled “Wildlife Overpass” that shows dozens of pronghorn streaming over a wildlife overpass near Pinedale has garnered more than 1.1 million views since it was posted to Facebook in 2019. Those numbers, paired with the state’s promotion efforts, help explain how Wyoming has set itself apart as a national leader in mitigating the impacts — both indirect and literal — of transportation infrastructure on wildlife
In the 1-minute-47-second clip, about 50 of the continent’s fastest land mammals race across a well-beaten dirt path topping a broad bridge arching over U.S. Highway 191. Underneath, drivers zip by in a perpendicular trajectory, presumably unaware of the animals overhead completing a seasonal migration their species has participated in for thousands of years.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation installed the structure in 2012 as part of the Trapper’s Point project aimed at reducing wildlife-vehicle mortalities and helping restore migration corridors for ungulates like pronghorn, which boast one of North America’s longest land migrations. Since completion of the project, which included two overpasses and six underpasses along a 12-mile section of Highway 191, wildlife-vehicle crashes have dropped by 85% within the project area. The project was named the Wyoming Engineering Society’s President’s Project of the year in 2012. In an article about the award, WES noted that savings attributable to the reduction in collisions are expected to exceed the project’s $9.7 million price tag within 12 years of construction.
The fact that the video and the project’s stats have been published and shared widely speaks to two of Wyoming’s strengths: a strong data orientation informing its wildlife crossing efforts and a flourishing collaboration between state agencies like Wyoming Game and Fish and the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
While Wyoming has always been ahead of its time in the wildlife-crossing space, having built its first crossing for mule deer in the 1970s, Western Transportation Institute research ecologist Marcel Huijser says the state has really started centering wildlife in its conversations about transportation during the past decade. “And it’s a conservative state, don’t forget,” he added.
One way Wyoming has done that is by gathering data that goes beyond wildlife crashes and carcasses, which are the primary ways Montana, its neighbor to the north, measure how transportation affects wildlife.
In Wyoming, wildlife biologists have studied how ungulates like mule deer, pronghorn and elk move through the state during annual migrations, and the Wyoming Department of Transportation has ready access to that data. Staff from the two agencies have been in regular contact since the Wyoming Wildlife and Roadways Summit, which drew 140 participants in 2017 and was repeated in 2021.
After the 2017 summit, WYDOT and WGFD staff took joint field trips to better understand what each kind of expertise sees in landscapes shared by wild animals and motorists. Engineers can better appreciate biological concerns that way, and the same holds true for biologists looking at landscape through an engineering lens, said Bob Bonds, who worked in WYDOT’s environmental services bureau before taking his current engineering position with the Federal Highway Administration. Scott Gamo, WYDOT’s environmental services manager, added that it probably helps that Wyoming is a small state — at 578,803 residents, it’s the country’s least populated.
“A lot of folks know [each other],” Gamo said. “What I’ve seen in my tenure in the state is that there’s a lot of communication and cooperation between agencies and other entities that tends to work pretty well.”
After the 2017 summit, which was attended by representatives from WYDOT, WGFD and a collection of nonprofits, Wyoming identified 240stretches of roadway of special concern for wildlife mortality. An implementation committee then evaluated each “hot spot” according to crash frequency, core wildlife habitat and migration corridors to winnow the list to 10 priority projects with objectives and approximate price tags. Though public safety is part of the push for crossings, much of WYDOT’s planning prioritizes habitat connectivity and migration corridors, which differs from the more limited approach Montana has taken to crossing initiatives in the past decade.
Wyoming’s collaboration, assessment and prioritization translate to a plan for the future that will enable Wyoming to build on past successes, which the Federal Highway Administration recognized in 2005, 2010 and 2011 with its Exemplary Ecosystem Initiative Award.
Just two and a half years after the initial Wyoming Wildlife and Roadways Summit, the state secured more than $17 million for the Dry Piney project, which involves a 12-mile stretch of Highway 189 between La Barge and Big Piney set to receive as many as eight underpasses and miles of fencing to funnel mule deer, elk and moose into them. Most of the funding is provided by a $14.5 million federal grant, but WYDOT and WGFD each kicked in $1.25 million from their respective budgets, and nonprofit groups and private donors have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars as well. Construction is slated to start this year.
WYDOT and WGFD don’t just keep each other up to speed on mitigation measures, they make sure the public is in the loop, too.
The Game and Fish Department’s wildlife crossing website promotes eye-catching stats: 4% of the state’s mule deer population is killed every year in vehicle collisions; deer need 30 seconds between vehicles to safely cross a road; 15% of all Wyoming vehicles crashes are with wildlife; and each collision with a big game animal results in $11,600 in property damage, on average.
In a similar vein, online visitors to the Wyoming Migration Initiative, a project of the University of Wyoming’s Department of Zoology and Physiology, can peruse animated maps of migratory routes based on GPS and radio collar data, learn about the group’s current research projects, and watch videos about ungulate migration. These, and projects like the Path of the Pronghorn, which became the United States’ first federally designated migration corridor in 2008, are the kinds of initiatives that generate public support for wildlife crossings.
The outreach appears to work. A 2019 University of Wyoming poll of 400 registered Wyoming voters found that 64% strongly support building more crossings, and another 22% somewhat support them. It also found that 76% of respondents deem highways a threat to wildlife migration — a higher percentage than all other factors named in the poll, including development, fencing, climate change, and oil and gas drilling.
There’s another key element working in Wyoming’s favor: political will. It’s evident in state lawmakers’ support of such initiatives, Bond said, and bolstered by the backing of sporting groups like the Muley Fanatic Foundation and conservation organizations like the Wyoming Chapter of The Wildlife Society and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, all three of which participated in one or both of the state’s Wildlife and Roadways summits.
“We like our wildlife here. We all travel the road and know these things intersect, so [we do] what we can to make that better,” Gamo said.
“Wyoming realized early on that protecting wildlife from [roadway impacts] is very important,” Bonds said. He acknowledges that state lawmakers’ support of crossing initiatives might be “token” since they’re spared the responsibility of allocating money to the agency from the state’s general fund, but backing from policymakers can’t hurt. (Most of WYDOT’s funding comes from the federal government, but fuel taxes, vehicle registrations and mineral royalties also contribute to WYDOT’s revenue stream.)
“We’re pretty lucky,” Bonds said. “I had a conversation with some of my peers in Montana and Idaho a while back, and Idaho is not that way. As soon as somebody proposes a wildlife crossing you’ll get legislators and politicians screaming bloody murder that you’re spending money on that instead of more commerce-related [initiatives], which is kind of ironic — I would imagine Idaho is about the same as Wyoming in generating a fair amount of [revenue] from wildlife and tourism.”
In December, Wyoming’s Republican Gov. Mark Gordon set aside $10 million of the state’s $1 billion allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funding for wildlife crossing projects. A year prior, in a press release about the U.S. Department of Transportation grant that launched the Dry Piney project, he said similar efforts “have not only benefited wildlife, but saved motorists as well.” He added that he hoped the DOT grant would open the door for federal funding of similar projects.
Voters have registered their support for crossing initiatives, too. Two years ago, in an unusually high show of support, 79% of Teton County voters approved the allocation of $10 million in Special Project Excise Taxes — a 1% sales tax on goods and services that voters channel into local projects — for wildlife crossing projects to make several county hot spots safer for animals like moose. Construction on the first of several projects deploying the SPET funding is expected to start in 2023.
Teton County is the geographic center of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which the National Park Service describes as “one of the largest nearly-intact temperate zone ecosystems on Earth.” The heart of that ecosystem, Yellowstone National Park, is located almost entirely in Wyoming, but the GYE stretches a long way north in Montana. Different groups put different boundaries around the GYE, but most of them include the Pinedale area that’s part of the Trapper’s Point crossing project at the southern end and much of U.S. Highway 191’s route through Montana at the north end.
That stretch of Highway 191 through south-central Montana dissects national forest, which provides habitat for grizzly bears, elk, moose, bighorn sheep and red foxes. It also connects Bozeman and Big Sky, two communities struggling to keep up with rapid growth and grappling with attendant impacts on the area’s iconic wildlife. That tension is abundantly clear on the stretch of U.S. 191 between Four Corners and Big Sky, which accommodates more vehicles on an average day than nearly every other highway in the state.
Rob Ament, Western Transportation Institute’s road ecology program manager, said U.S. 191’s route through Montana is an outlier in that it’s one of the few stretches of highway transecting the GYE that hasn’t gotten some kind of treatment to foster habitat connectivity.
“All of the important highways around Yellowstone have studies, are getting studies, or in some cases have built crossings because of the studies … except 191 [in Montana] and maybe [Highway 14] near Cody,” he said.
Wildlife advocate and Bozeman resident Carol Fifer notes that animals don’t stop at state lines and conservation efforts shouldn’t either.
“There needs to be consistency so wildlife … can continue their migratory paths, their mating routines and go [between] Wyoming and Montana as easily as you and I can,” said Fifer, who was a member of Montanans for Safe Wildlife Passage for nearly a decade before her recent departure from the group. “Right now they’re just running a gauntlet.”
This series’ final installment will look at a newly launched effort to gather data on how a critical corridor of Highway 191 impacts wildlife.