Wildlife crossings substantially reduce collisions, but a lot more infrastructure is needed to eradicate them. (Photo courtesy of Donnie Rosie on Unsplash).

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The first time I saw a wildlife crossing, I was driving on Highway 93 in western Montana through the Flathead Reservation when I saw the arched overpass, a gentle, grassy slope for creatures big and (sort of) small to peer over as they venture across. 

The overpass is one of 81 crossing structures built by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on Highway 93, with roughly half of them on the Flathead Reservation because of efforts from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, according to reporting from Montana Free Press. In the 1990s, the tribes refused to grant easements to the Montana Department of Transportation for a highway-widening proposal unless they agreed to reduce the road’s impact on wildlife. 

The project that followed – a $21 million endeavor that included an overpass, underpasses, and fencing along the highway – is one of the most extensive wildlife-vehicle collision mitigation efforts the United States has ever supported. 

Decades after talk of the project first began, it remains an outlier in a country crisscrossed by roads where the movement of animals is given little consideration. 

Some of my favorite wildlife sightings have been through the windows of a car. Most recently, the condensation from a bison’s breath practically fogged my back windshield as I scooted slowly by it on the narrow roads of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where yellow wildlife crossing signs abound. That same trip, I slammed on my brakes for a porcupine scurrying just a few feet from my front tires. 

On a different day and a different road in Montana, I came across a deer that had very recently been hit. Still alive, its head wagged desperately against the concrete while its torso remained glued to the ground. 

Shocked, with a hand covering my mouth and tears streaming down my face, I steered the car around this fearful dying animal and pulled onto the side of the road at the closest turnout. This was the first time I wished for a rifle to put the animal out of its misery. A green truck rolled next to me, an older white-haired man at the steering wheel. “Did you hit it?” he asked. Still stunned by the proximity of slow and painful death, I silently shook my head and he drove away. I kept driving, too. 

Roadkill is treated as a necessary, albeit unfortunate and always messy, inevitability of 21st century progress. How else can we get where we need to go? Of course there will be casualties. My own reaction when I drive past a smeared pile of guts is to look the other way (unless, like the half-alive deer, it demands to be seen), or think of the scavengers that will eventually clean it up. It’s just the circle of life, one friend told me. She didn’t say anything about the vultures that are also crushed under the roaring wheels of our progress. 

Earlier this month, the application window for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new wildlife crossings pilot program closed. Funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the program will allocate $350 million over five years to projects across the country, prioritizing rural areas where wildlife-vehicle collisions are most common. 

When I interviewed Fraser Shilling, one of the country’s leading road ecologists, about the program last spring, he was less than impressed by the amount of money being made available. While $350 million sounds like a lot, he said, if you spread that across 50 states it equals about one wildlife crossing each. Not exactly the same scale of the project the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes led a decade and a half ago. 

I’ve spoken with Shilling before, and every conversation provokes thoughts that we – me, you – would rather not dwell on. “Putting nature last when it comes to biodiversity, even if we realize the potential consequence, as a society we think of it as a necessary sacrifice,” Shilling told me. Our society depends on the interstate highway system. We rely on the goods transported via freight trucks from thousands of miles away. Our travel (mine, for sure), relies on long distance transportation to get to those “far-away” places to be in nature, no matter the unnatural ways we got there. 

I’m not writing to condemn this behavior – I just want to acknowledge my own hypocrisy. I cried about the deer in Montana and swore at the anonymous driver who killed it, all while knowing it very well could have been me wiping fur from my fender. We make choices every day. I drove on. 

The most effective wildlife crossings on Highway 93 have reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions by nearly 100%, according to Montana Free Press reporting. The least effective crossings reduced collisions by 50%. 

Still, thousands of animals die everyday on American roads. More wildlife crossings could be one way to decrease the body count. But, as Shilling said, a lot more money is needed to make a substantial difference. 

“The $350 million will mitigate our guilt over the harm we cause nature,” he said. “It won’t actually mitigate the harm to nature that transportation causes.”

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