News & Media

Gazette opinion: New law watches out for wildlife-motorist safety

July 19, 2012

The new Highway Bill recognizes what Montana and Wyoming residents have always known: Critters and cars don’t do well on the same track.

The law that Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed last week incorporates in statute, for the first time, provisions for wildlife public safety and habitat access to be considered in planning ground transportation projects.

This is not some Washington-concocted mandate. Rather, much of the research supporting motorist/wildlife safety comes from Montana. And the provisions were written to provide states with flexibility.

In 2008, the Federal Highway Administration’s National Wildlife-Vehicle Collision Report to Congress documented a 50 percent increase in motor vehicle-wildlife collisions in the previous 15 years. The report revealed that more than 1 million wildlife-vehicle collisions occur annually, costing U.S. taxpayers in excess of $6 billion annually.

The Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University in Bozeman helped prepare that Federal Highway Administration report.

“Montana has been a leader on this,” said Rob Ament of the Western Transportation Institute at MSU. A major example is Highway 93 in Western Montana, which now has nearly 70 wildlife crossings to separate traffic from large mammals.

The law also encourages states to maintain connectivity for wildlife migration. Wyoming already is working on such a project with the pronghorn route in the Pinedale area.

“Wildlife crossings, underpasses and overpasses are proof positive that we have solutions,” said Tony Clevenger, research ecologist with WTI. “And now we have the needed direction from Congress to pursue these solutions with more vigor.”

Wildlife-vehicle collisions can be reduced by as much as 99 percent when overpasses, underpasses and fencing are used.

The new law doesn’t mandate what states must do to prevent vehicle-wildlife collisions, but rather encourages every program to plan how to mitigate those collisions, Ament said. The wildlife provisions also apply to aquatic species, allowing such things as fish passages and passages for smaller species to access their habitat with less risk of becoming road kill.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who helped write the Senate Highway Bill, and also served on the Highway Bill conference committee, received praise from the National Parks Conservation Association for his leadership in getting wildlife provisions into the Senate bill and getting it passed into law.

“This legislation offers states and federal land managers the opportunity to better protect national park visitors and the wildlife they come to view,” said Bart Melton of National Parks Conservation Association.

The wildlife provisions are incorporated in the bill to give states more flexibility to spend highway and highway safety dollars in the way that makes most sense for them.

As WTI director Steve Albert said: “The safety of rural and suburban American motorists has gotten the attention it deserves from Congress with the added benefit of helping wildlife cross the road.”