If you drive a vehicle on Berkshire roadways, chance are you have seen wildlife splayed on the asphalt; commonly termed “Roadkill”. The most common type of wildlife killed on roadways in Massachusetts are deer, but many raccoons, porcupines, skunks, small rodents and turtles are among the species that add to the toll of dead animals. This is a significant problem; causing animal suffering, loss of human life and property damage. Wildlife mortality on roadways has even developed into a topic of academic research to understand the causes and how it can be mitigated for wild animals, for road safety concerns, and for an economic impact on both drivers and highway management.
Improving Landscape Connectivity in Massachusetts will
• Reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and improve human safety
• Enhance, protect, and restore habitats impacted by roads
• Incorporate conservation priorities into transportation planning
• Implement wildlife transportation and research
Several Massachusetts agencies have launched Linking Landscapes for Massachusetts Wildlife (LLMW) a long-term and multifaceted volunteer based monitoring program and planning collaboration to be implemented throughout the state. Through collaborative planning, research, and on-the-ground projects, the organizations have incorporated ecological considerations into everyday business practice. They launched this volunteer based monitoring program as a state website, www.linkinglandscapes.info, where visitors can report wildlife roadkill, and have it become part of a state database, as well as large migrations of pond-breeding amphibians that across roadways.
Berkshire Environmental Action Team, BEAT, has a “Connecting for Wildlife” program that is striving to improve habitat connectivity and motorist safety in Western Massachusetts with four phases. The first is IDENTIFICATION, which utilizes computer models, the statewide roadkill database, expert and local opinion. BEAT will concentrate on 20-40 road segments that hold the greatest potential to increase habitat connectivity while also making the roads safer for motorists. Second is the SURVEYING phase, which BEAT measures, documents, and photographs road segments that are then surveyed in person with Berkshire Wildlife Trackers (BWT). [A group that I am proud to be part of for these “boots on the ground” tracking sessions.] These certified wildlife trackers will conduct hands on wildlife tracking to calibrate computer model data to better understand where and how infrastructure affects wildlife movement. The third phase is REPORTING and ANALYSIS, when BEAT will analyze and summarize findings, create written reports, build an ArcGIS database, and disseminate data to appropriate agencies and individuals. The final phase is ACTION: A summary of the transportation ecology news gained during the previous phases will be submitted to the Massachusetts organizations tasked with reviewing and designing better roadway systems by streamline environmental regulatory review, and improve the ecological integrity of lands abutting roads and highways. This review process should result in an improvement of public safety on roadways with an abundance of wildlife movement.
The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit environmental group, is another organization that is involved in a long-term local project, Berkshire Wildlife Linkage. Their goal is to gather data about roadkill and furnish it to MassDOT for later use in road planning. They also see that the biggest threat to a wide range of animals is from their need to dodge traffic to reach the basic needs for food, water and breeding territory. Eventually, the data will be used to determine the best locations for culverts, bridges or other types of passageways for animals to use.
Creating Wildlife Crossings in North America
The process of protecting wildlife and humans can be daunting, but across our state and elsewhere, there are many successful examples, including: “The Turtle Roadway Mortality Hotspots”, whose data is used by MassDOT and MassWildlife to identify and prioritize turtle protection efforts. Every year state biologists and citizen-scientists conduct surveys to document annual turtle migration on statewide Massachusetts roads and highways. Roadside Habitat Management and Habitat Restoration and Management programs are underway at multiple areas where state highways exist adjacent to habitats of the highest conservation priority. Researchers have been able to map out places along major state roads that have high concentrations of animal road crossings. Several New England Audubon groups hope that data gathered will be used by state and local governments to install wildlife crossings, such as fencing and expanded under-road culverts that can give animals safe passage and prevent collisions with vehicles.
The state of Maine has built comprehensive wildlife crossings in Gorham, Caribou and Dixfield, where fencing and natural bottom culverts have been installed to coax animals underneath the roadway. The Gorham project used oversized bridges with 8-foot fences to guide animals into two brooks and under the roadway. Game cameras at the site have picked up deer, raccoon and turkeys using the passage, while cameras at the Caribou site have picked up bear, lynx and fisher. An official for the wildlife crossing projects said, “The hard part is convincing the animals to use it”. “Most of the crossing structures work way better if you have fencing leading up to it, and when fencing is next to other people’s property, it is not that easy to incorporate.” In some cases, the wildlife is already using structures such as culverts to get from one side of a road to the other, and the crossing can be improved simply with the addition of fencing. It was found that a crossing doesn’t have to be a big-build project, and usually the inexpensive ones make the project easier to be completed.
The U.S., Canada and other foreign countries have already installed large-scale wildlife passages to cross major highways. This concept began in European countries and has started to increase in popularity in North America. A year after 25 of the critically endangered Florida panthers were killed by vehicles In Florida, state and federal agencies added fencing and an underpass to help the animals cross a busy state highway. Washington state has started construction of a huge wildlife overpass above Interstate 90, to allow animals such as elk and bear to cross the major highway, which bisects the Cascade Mountains. Canada’s Route 2 which extends across the entire country, has an extensive system of wildlife fencing that basically funnels the animals into a one directional chute that guides them away from crossing at indiscriminate intervals and instead guides them to a safer location. The chutes are positioned about every half mile and have dramatically curbed the number of motorists killed and injured by ever present moose population in the territory.
Moose, the largest species in the deer family, can pose a significant threat to motor vehicle operators when they move onto roadway surfaces. They can weigh up to 1,100 lbs. and pose a significant risk of injury or death during a collision due to their long legs and tendency to be knocked into the passenger area of vehicles. Most of these collisions happen between dusk and dawn when visibility is reduced, and moose are most often seen between May and October when leave the forest to escape the flies and heat and to feed on accessible vegetation. They are also becoming more frequent inhabitants of our Berkshire forests and roads with at least 1,000 moose residing in Massachusetts in a 2015survey.
In closing, the valiant and much needed effort to reduce the number of roadkill on our roadways in not just for human safety, for some endangered species, safe road crossings might be the difference between survival and extinction. Barbara Charry, a conservation biologist with Falmouth-based Maine Audubon, says, “If we want to maintain the diversity of wildlife we hope to have into the future, this is one of the key issues we need to address, or we may risk losing species”. Wildlife-vehicle collisions are the No. 1 cause of wildlife mortality in the United States.
Be safe on the roads and drive like wildlife depend on it.