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Wildlife crossings are a lifeline for Canada’s grizzly bears

Editor’s note: This story was identified by Patricia Zurita, guest editor for Call to Earth’s ‘Nature’s Highways’ theme.


How did the grizzly cross the road? With difficulty. It took Lingenpolter, a young male grizzly bear, 46 attempts to safely cross Interstate 90 in Montana.

Carrying a GPS tracker fitted by researchers, the bear was seen approaching the highway on numerous occasions between fall 2020 and spring 2021, but always turning back. Until he finally got lucky crossing the road under a bridge north of the town of Drummond.

The story of Lingenpolter is not uncommon. For animals that need room to roam, busy highways are a dangerous obstacle. If they cross, they risk being hit by a vehicle, but not crossing can restrict an animal’s range, causing populations to fragment and decline.

“(Highways) are a real barrier to all kinds of different wildlife,” says Jodi Hilty, president and chief scientist of Y2Y, an initiative that aims to conserve prime habitat across 2,000 miles of land between the park Yellowstone National Park in the United States and the Yukon in northwestern Canada. Connectivity is vital for a species’ survival — “to maintain its genetics, find the resources it needs, and help maintain healthy populations,” she adds.

A simple but effective method of overcoming these obstacles is wildlife crossings – bridges or underpasses that allow animals to cross a highway safely. Y2Y helped pioneer this approach across its entire range.

“When Y2Y started in 1993, there were exactly no wildlife crossing structures. Today there are 117,” Hilty told CNN.

In April, the ground was laid on the 118th – the Bow Valley Viaduct that will cross the Trans-Canada Highway in Alberta.

This highway, which stretches nearly 8,000 kilometers, passes through some of the country’s most scenic landscapes, including the majestic Canadian Rockies and beautiful Banff National Park, home to grizzly bears, wolves, elk, deer and other wild animals.

According to Y2Y, 22,000 cars use the road every day, and that number rises to over 30,000 in the summer, when tourists flock to admire the natural beauty of the area. But this traffic intrusion into the wilderness has resulted in a high number of wildlife-vehicle collisions.

On a 25-mile stretch of freeway, with no fences or wildlife crossings, Y2Y has recorded around 70 road fatalities per year – and the true number is likely much higher as injured animals often leave the road and die more late, says Hilty.

Yet, in places where there are wildlife crossings and roadside fencing, roadkill has decreased significantly. Take Banff National Park, where there are 41 underpasses and seven overpasses on a 55-mile stretch of highway. Here, wildlife-vehicle collisions have decreased by more than 80% and, for elk and deer, by more than 96%.

How animals cross one of the longest roads in the world

In addition to helping the animals, the crossing “makes people safer,” says Jesse Whittington, a wildlife ecologist with Parks Canada, which manages Banff National Park.

Whittington has studied the effect of railroad crossings in and around the park for years. Camera traps capture the animals that use them, and radio collars attached to grizzly bears and wolves have shown how traverses can help enable long-range movement.

Wildlife crossings are a lifeline for Canada’s grizzly bears

Animals don’t immediately learn where a railroad crossing is, he says, but highway fencing — with foundations built two meters underground, so animals can’t dig underneath — helps keep them out. head towards it. Over time, grizzly bears and wolves learn to use crossings and pass this knowledge on to their offspring.

Since 1996, Parks Canada has documented animals using overpasses and underpasses 187,000 times, according to Whittington — “a sign that these crossing structures are working.”

Banff National Park and the Y2Y project set an example for others, says Hilty.

“I really hope our model is continually taken up, because I believe that together we can ensure that people and nature can thrive,” she says.

There are signs of momentum. In 2021, the US government announced its Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which will provide $350 million over five years for the construction of wildlife bridges, tunnels, fences and other infrastructure. And in April this year, construction began on the world’s largest wildlife crossing, which will span more than 10 lanes of the 101 Freeway in northwest Los Angeles, connecting the Simi Hills to the Santa Monica Mountains and giving wildlife like cougars more room to roam.

Hilty hopes the use of wildlife crossings will become common practice across the planet. “We need to get to a point where when roads are busy it becomes normal societal practice that we create safe passage for wildlife,” she says.


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