Searching for safe passage: Group works for safer wildlife crossings on I-40
Growing up in eastern Kentucky, Frances Figart loved any chance to glimpse the diverse wildlife species roaming those Appalachian foothills — except when the sightings occurred after the creatures had become roadkill, something that occurred all too frequently. She felt their deaths keenly.
“I can remember when I was a young driver running over a snake once, and I was so upset by that one individual death that I just turned around and went home and didn’t go to my job,” she said. “I called in sick and I just really took it personally.”
Figart eventually had to learn how to shelve those feelings, go to work and move on with her day. But even now, at 57, “a part of me has always continued to react just like that young child that was a teenager,” she said.
That lifelong reaction drew her to become an impassioned member of the Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project, a group of people and organizations dedicated to providing safe ways for wildlife to cross Interstate 40 and other area roadways. In addition to her day job as creative services director for the Great Smoky Mountains Association, Figart serves as outreach committee chair for the Safe Passage Fund Coalition, which comprises The Conservation Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, Great Smoky Mountains Association, National Park Conservation Association, North Carolina Wildlife Federation and Wildlands Network.
Watching the crossings
Jeff Hunter, senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association and collaborative facilitator for the project, first gathered the group of federal, state and non-governmental organizations that eventually became Safe Passage in Asheville in February 2017, an effort that built on two decades of conversation beginning with Hugh Irwin’s 2002 publication Return of the Great Forest.
The 2017 discussion was spurred by the 12 Mile Project, a U.S. Forest Service plan to expand elk habitat on both sides of the highway.
“You have to think about how the animals are going to respond to that, because you don’t want elk in the road,” said Hunter.
A wildlife overpass provides animals a safe way across Highway 93 on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. Marcel Hujiser photo
The search for shelter, food and mates often requires animals to make dangerous road crossings. Between 2017 and 2019, there were 56,868 wildlife-vehicle collisions reported in North Carolina, and likely many more that went unreported, with five human fatalities. As roads get busier and climate change spurs species migration, that number is only expected to rise — but solutions like wildlife overpasses, culverts and fencing used to guide animals to safe crossing spots could help.
The Safe Passage effort began with funding research to investigate how wildlife interact with the road now. Those results could then be used to justify future mitigation efforts. When researchers learned in April 2019 that the N.C. Department of Transportation would replace four bridges in the Pigeon River Gorge over the coming years, the effort gained urgency. Wildlands Network, NCPA and the N.C. Wildlife Federation partnered on the research effort, with Wildlands and NCPA performing the fieldwork.
“This is a once-in-75-years-or-so opportunity to make a difference, because once they replace the bridge, it’s kind of baked in for the life of the structure,” said Hunter.
Liz Hillard and Steve Goodman, researchers with Wildlands and NCPA, have been exploring the issue since 2018 and are now analyzing their data for publication later this year.
“Our research really is focused on elk, bear and deer,” said Hillard. “One, because they have this higher human safety component. Hitting an elk would be very severe, as well as bear and deer. We imagine providing safe passage for them along the roadway is going to help improve other wildlife species.”
Hillard and Goodman have been working to identify problem areas and wildlife crossing hotspots by collaring elk, monitoring camera traps and studying roadkill levels.
Based on a compilation of data gathered during driving tours of the road and records from the N.C. and Tennessee Departments of Transportation, between September 2018 and December 2020, 140 large animals have been killed on the road. This includes 72 bear, 55 white-tailed deer, one elk and 12 animals whose species was unspecified in DOT records.
“It is a significant amount of wildlife,” said Hillard. “It’s heartbreaking to see.”
While Hillard had some preliminary impressions to share, she doesn’t expect to have any comprehensive information available until the summer. However, she could say that elk GPS data have shown that the Waterville Bridge underpass and the Appalachian Trail crossing are areas of interest.
The researchers put up a total of 120 trail cameras throughout the gorge, including at 15 structures such as bridges, overpasses and culverts. Interestingly, Hillard said, the metal culverts used to move water under the interstate get a lot of animal activity, with many species — even those too large to fit through them — coming to check them out.
“Animals are finding these opportunities and using some of these structures, but they weren’t built with wildlife in mind,” she said.
A camera trap photo shows a bobcat using existing culverts to cross I-40. NPCA/Wildlands Network photo
Raising funds, raising awareness
Safe Passage wants to ensure that, in the future, these structures are built to accommodate wildlife needs.
Time is of the essence. The first bridge replacement project in the Pigeon River Gorge — Harmon Den Road — is slated to begin this fall.
“Nobody wants to hit an animal with their car — I don’t care who you are,” said Hunter. “So there’s been tremendous support.”
Support will have to be more than verbal acquiescence, however, and making the wildlife-friendly crossings a reality will require more than just state funding. Though some federal money might come through, that’s not certain, so the Safe Passage Fund Coalition is raising money to help defray the cost.
Current plans for the Harmon Den Road bridge call for a 9-foot-tall wildlife fence and paths under the bridge to keep animals from crossing the highway while also providing access from one side to the other. The DOT is also considering using wildlife guards — similar to cattle guards — to keep deer and elk from walking up the exit ramps.
“These measures will hopefully encourage wildlife to use the area under the bridge to cross I-40, which would be safer for drivers and wildlife,” said DOT spokesman David Uchiyama. “The animal safety additions are included in the $9.5 million estimate for this project. The Safe Passage Group is seeking funding for fencing outside the project limits.”
In addition to funds, Safe Passage is raising awareness. That’s where Figart’s focus is.
“I am so passionate about this topic that once I got involved with the discussions, I realized that I could really lend my expertise in terms of networking,” she said.
Figart first joined the project in 2018 with a passion for the topic and a resolve to lend her expertise in networking and outreach. But that role expanded when Safe Passage colleague Taylor Barnhill asked her during an informal backyard dinner when she was going to start a children’s book for Safe Passages.
“At first I protested that I had too many other obligations,” Figart said. “But over the next six weekends, I wrote the eight-chapter book, channeling the 11-year-old kid in me and creating a narrative I would have enjoyed reading with my own mother at that age.”
In February, the Great Smoky Mountains Association published the result of that effort, a 122-page book for kids 7 to 13 titled A Search for Safe Passage.
Featuring illustrations by Emma DuFort, the book tells the story of best friends Bear and Deer, who grew up together on the north side of a beautiful Appalachian gorge. Their grandparents could travel freely on either side of a fast-flowing river, but now the dangerous Human Highway divides the gorge. One night, two strangers arrive from the opposite side with news that leads to tough decisions, a life-changing adventure, new friends and a search for safe passage. The book also features a robust educational appendix that includes information about the species that appear in the book, the importance of safe road crossings and even a song, written by Figart.
The book has earned initial praise from conservationists and biologists, and from retired highway engineer Terry McGuire.
“Through the journey of a variety of likeable forest animals, concepts of road ecology and the effect of highways on wildlife movement are introduced in a simple, understandable manner,” he wrote. “This book gives young influencers the tools to impact how we as a society address highway wildlife mortality in the future.”
The present situation is concerning, but without intervention the future will likely be even more so. As forested land continues to disappear in favor of development, bastions like the Smokies will become increasingly important, and connectivity across their acreage even more vital. And as climate change marches on, animals will have even more reasons to search for safe passage toward more habitable lands. A projection map from The Nature Conservancy forecasts that many of their paths will converge in the Southern Appalachians.
It’s a big job, but the momentum is promising. When he started facilitating the effort Hunter, now 59, had assumed he’d retire before seeing any concrete results, but with the Harmon Den Bridge project on the horizon, that’s no longer the case.
“It’s moving faster than I expected,” he said.
To learn more about Smokies Safe Passage or to make a donation, visit www.smokiessafepassage.org. Frances Figart’s new book Search for Safe Passage is available at Great Smoky Mountains National Park bookstores or online at www.smokiesinformation.org.
By the numbers
• 26,000: vehicles that travel Interstate 40 through the Pigeon River Gorge daily.
• $6,000: average cost of a deer-vehicle collision.
• 56,868: number of reported N.C. wildlife-vehicle collisions, 2017-2019.
• 26,000: annual human injuries due to wildlife collisions on U.S. roads.
• 1 to 2 million: large animals killed annually on U.S. roads
• $12 billion: annual property damage due to wildlife collisions on U.S. roads
• 200: annual human fatalities due to wildlife collisions on U.S. roads
Source: NCDOT, FHWA, Montana State University