The stage is set for wildlife improvement on I-40

Interstate 40 sees more than 27,000 vehicles daily between Asheville, North Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee.  Safe Passage participated in a three-year study of high wildlife mortality along a 28-mile stretch of trail near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park border.

If you’ve traveled down Interstate 40 between Asheville and Knoxville recently, you know there’s some construction not far from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boundary. But what exactly is going on?

First of all, the North Carolina Department of Transportation has been preparing for some time to replace five bridges in the Pigeon River Gorge over a period of about five years. At the same time that it was being planned, a group of regional organizations began discussing what could be done about the rising wildlife mortality rate—up to 77 dead bears in 2021 alone—on the 28-mile stretch of road that includes the planned bridges. replacing.

This group became known as Safe Passage: I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project, and both the North Carolina and Tennessee Departments of Transportation became active members of the collaboration.

► Wildlife Protection:Wildlife Trail under I-40 in Pigeon River Gorge, an “excellent start” for bear and elk safety

Word from Smokies: Travis Wilson helps provide safe passage for North Carolina wildlife

Geoff Hunter talks about road ecology - how roads affect both nearby plants and animals - under the Bluffton Bridge on Interstate 40 near Hartford, Tennessee.

An extensive three-year study of the gorge by the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA) and the Wildlands Network involved fitting elk with GPS collars to track their movements and using hundreds of wildlife cameras to pinpoint where several animal species were trying to cross as well as where they were killed in vehicular collisions. This research demonstrated that these scheduled bridge replacements provided excellent opportunities to incorporate some improvements to help wildlife cross the highway using structures that have proven successful in reducing wildlife deaths in other parts of the United States and around the world.

“The contractor opened the new bridge over Cold Spring Creek ahead of schedule in mid-May,” said Jeffrey Hunter, Safe Passage facilitator and senior program manager for the NPCA. “NCDOT has advised me that there will be some ramp closures due to ongoing drainage work at Harmon Den, but now that the bridge has reopened, work on improving the wildlife can begin.”

Jeff Hunter detailed the construction work underway at the Harmon Den exit on Interstate 40 to students from several universities in late March.

Hunter says these improvements to the Harmon Den exit would include seating to create parallel paths on and on both sides of Cold Springs Creek that would allow animals to navigate under the bridge. This is particularly important for larger species such as elk and deer because a previously large riprap blocked their passage. A 10-foot tall wildlife fence will be used to direct animals to safe passage in conjunction with one-way jump holes in the wildlife fence that allow animals to disembark from the highway. Livestock guards will also be used to prevent ungulates (elk and deer) from walking on and off slopes.

Word from Smokies: Keys to a successful wildlife crossing on I-40 at Pigeon River Gorge

Word from Smokies: TEDx Asheville spokesperson endorses the Safe Passage for Wildlife Project

The Safe Passage Fund Coalition recommends replacing small sewers like this one designed to carry water under I-40 with larger ones that can let through bear, elk and deer, the focal species of an extensive three-year study in the bathroom.  George River.

“Our first priority recommendation is to replace the sewers under the I-40 west entrance ramp and eastbound exit ramp,” Hunter said. “The culverts are currently too small for the elk to get through and replacing them with larger culverts would allow all wildebeest to avoid crossing the slopes in and out of grade.”

To enable people to contribute their money to the wildlife crossing business of the future, seven Safe Passage partner organizations have formed the Safe Passage Fund Alliance. But federal and state funding is also needed to support DOTs at the state level.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper met with Safe Passage supporters June 2 at the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Western Office in Asheville.  Left to right: Hugh Irwin of the Wildlife Society;  Bill Holman of the Preservation Fund;  Brad Stanback of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission;  Christine Laporte from Wildlands Network;  Tanya Prater of FernLeaf Community Charter School.  Ben Prater of Wildlife Advocates;  Nicky Robinson from Wildlands Network;  FernLeaf Community Charter School faculty Alexis Hinchliffe;  Joy Mast, Elsa Rule, and Kylie Montague, FernLeaf Community Charter School students;  Governor Roy Cooper.  Hani Morter of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy;  Liz Hillard from Wildlands Network;  Jeff Hunter of the National Parks Preservation Association;  Secretary Reed Wilson of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources;  Aurora

On June 2, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper met with Safe Passage Fund Coalition partners and other supporters of the action for a roundtable discussion on the importance of wildlife crossings in the state. Hunter began the meeting by introducing the coalition and its mission, then highlighted the group’s scientists and researchers, who explained how the data collected could be used to inform decisions about wildlife crossing sites in the future.

FernLeaf Charter School students Joy Mast, Elsa Rule, and Cailee Montague present wildlife advocacy messages to North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper at a meeting June 2 in Asheville.

Three students from FernLeaf Community Charter School in Fletcher presented letters formulated during a learning unit on road ecology – how plants and animals are affected by roads. Their lessons, hosted by Defenders of Wildlife and the Safe Passage Fund Coalition, included a field trip to Pigeon River Gorge to see firsthand how Safe Passage works to make I-40 safer and read the chapter book “A Search for Safe Passage” (Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2021 ).

The group asserted that North Carolina can become a leader in the wildlife crossing business in the eastern United States, raising the state’s profile nationally by improving safety for travelers through flag-driven transit structures. The governor agreed.

North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commissioner Brad Stanback speaks to North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper about the Safe Passage: I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project at the Asheville meeting June 2.

“It’s great to see Governor Cooper support Safe Passage, and it’s especially exciting to see young people helping to bring about the change we all want to see,” Hunter said. “We now have strong bipartisan support to address this seemingly intractable problem.”

Word from Smokies: A book that teaches young people about the need for wildlife crossings

Word from Smokies: Asheville’s Fates performance on videotape for the Safe Passage Project

Jeff Hunter will be giving a talk at 1 p.m. on Friday, June 17, 2022, as part of the Science at Sugarlands series hosted by Discover Life in America, a nonprofit partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Register at dlia.org/sas to receive a zoom link.

While Hunter says the issues with dead bears on I-40 remain – “We’ve had three dead bears in the last 10 days!” It is noted that there are many other wildlife mortality hotspots throughout the state.

“The cultural shift within NCDOT is the big story,” he said. “The agency is looking into normalizing addressing wildlife conflict in its statewide projects, just as it would address wetlands or other design challenges when building roads.”

But Hunter stressed that the two states’ transportation departments still need dedicated resources to conduct feasibility studies on the research-driven recommendations. He said our region requires federal transportation infrastructure support to make wildlife transit not an anomaly but the norm.

Francis Vegart

The full Pigeon River Gorge research report will be released to the public in the next two to three months. In the meantime, those interested can learn more with a free virtual talk Hunter will present at 1 p.m. on Friday, June 17, as part of the Science at Sugarlands series hosted by Discover Life in America, a nonprofit partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. log in dlia.org/sas To receive a link, enlarge.

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