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Report calls for wildlife crossings to lessen collisions

A report describing how two Montana highways could be made safer for motorists and wildlife has conservationists optimistic that roadway changes are afoot in south-central Montana - or will be soon. The report comes after a year of high-profile crashes resulting in the deaths of iconic Northern Rockies species including dozens of bison and elk and at least one grizzly cub.

Authors of the U.S. 191/MT 64 Wildlife and Transportation Assessment argue that those highways are ripe for wildlife crossings to reduce collisions, particularly as traffic increases and innovative funding make the often-spendy projects more economically feasible.

Wildlife crossings physically separate motorists from wildlife, reducing expensive and dangerous collisions and improving landscape connectivity for the many species that make a home in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Some crossings are built to span roadways, similar to bridges, while others use underpasses or culverts to give wildlife a safe place to pass from one side of a road to another. Smaller projects like underpasses can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars while more expensive overpasses can cost millions, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.

Elizabeth Fairbank, a road ecologist for the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, said in a recent interview that her organization had discussed examining U.S. 191's impact on wildlife since she was hired in 2018, when the intersection of roads, wildlife habitat and human safety was just starting to garner broader awareness.

Now road ecology is gaining a foothold in both transportation and conservation circles and becoming fodder for household conversations, Fairbank said. That's helped in part by a $350 million wildlife crossings pilot program incorporated in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress in 2021, she said.

U.S. 191 is of particular interest both for its ecological importance and its "exponential" growth as a transit corridor, said Fairbank, who was the lead author of the assessment published in September. Sections of U.S. 191 between Gallatin Gateway and the mouth of Gallatin Canyon average 15,000 vehicle trips per day, according to MDT data. Commuters working in Big Sky, tourists skiing Lone Peak and visitors taking in Yellowstone's thermal features and wildlife comprise much of that traffic.

"There's been more and more conflict between our human activity and movements, and wildlife movements," Fairbank said, adding that many GYE species travel long distances multiple times per year to survive.

"We are super lucky that we have pretty much all of the species here that were here when European settlers first came, [but] a lot of the animals that live here don't necessarily stay in one place," she said. "They move up from the high country in the summer and into the valley bottoms in the winter. That's often where they get into trouble with cars."

MDT data indicates that 24% of collisions on Highway 191 involve wildlife - well above both the statewide average of 10% and the national average of 5%. Driving that figure down to benefit species ranging from bighorn sheep and bison to elk and grizzly bears is a "multi-year, multi-site, multi-stakeholder proposition that will take collective action," according to the 165-page report, which CLLC prepared in coordination with Montana State University's Western Transportation Institute and with financial support from local foundations and a grant from the Big Sky Resort Tax Board.

Although wildlife-vehicle crash frequency is generally high in Montana - the Treasure State routinely holds the No. 2 spot for the likelihood a driver will collide with a wild animal per data insurance company State Farm analyzes - it's especially high on U.S. 191 due to high traffic loads and a healthy distribution of wildlife that spend at least part of their life in Yellowstone National Park or the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

The increase in traffic volume can be explained by burgeoning development and tourism in the region, which has made U.S. 191 one of the busiest highways in the state. Per the report, an estimated 2,500 construction and service workers commute from other parts of Gallatin County to Big Sky, which saw its population double between 2010 and 2020.

"Over 80 percent of workers have to commute along U.S. 191 and MT 64 just to get back and forth to their job every day, and there are really no alternate routes," Fairbank said. "That section, in particular, has seen skyrocketing use as well as safety concerns."

On the tourism and recreation front, both Big Sky Resort and Yellowstone National Park have posted record-breaking visitation in recent years. Montana's largest ski area logged more than 700,000 skier visits during the 2018-2019 season, according to Lone Mountain Land Company, which develops much of Big Sky's residential and commercial property, and the West Yellowstone entrance of the country's first national park now sees more than two million visitors each year.

As those numbers increase, so, too, do motorist collisions with wildlife: Between 2012 and 2020, the MDT recorded the presence of nearly 1,100 wildlife carcasses on the two highways, according to the report.

The study identified 11 priority locations for mitigation measures along an 81-mile stretch of Highway 191, which follows the Gallatin River for dozens of miles as it transects the southern portion of Gallatin County, and a nine-mile stretch of MT 64, which was constructed in the 1970s to service the town of Big Sky and its eponymous ski area.

Priority locations included in the analysis include an area near the Taylor Fork of the Gallatin River, which was the site of a recent grizzly cub fatality; the intersection of U.S. 191 and MT 64, where bighorn sheep congregate to access water and lick salt off the roadway; and an area near Porcupine Creek flagged for its importance to animals migrating between the Gallatin and Madison ranges and high crash frequency. As with other stretches of U.S. 191, the development of that region presents planning and technical challenges.

Stretches of highway without particularly high collision rates were also included in the priority list based on conservation considerations such as their ability to support the movement of threatened and rare species like grizzlies and wolverines.

Topping the priority list was a five-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 191 between the rural community of Gallatin Gateway and the confluence of Spanish Creek and the Gallatin River. Last fall, that area experienced a spate of collisions that totaled multiple vehicles and killed at least 16 elk during an especially deadly six-week stretch.

Photographer and Gallatin Gateway resident Holly Pippel, who has kept a tally of elk carcasses, said she worried then - and still does - that someone would die in one of these collisions. Pippel, a longtime resident of Gallatin Gateway, also said "awareness is at an all-time high" around the issues and she believes the kinds of conservations needed to drive change are starting to happen.

Mitigation measures considered in the report include wildlife overpasses, underpasses, culverts and animal detection systems, which can alert motorists of the presence of large animals on or near a road. Many of the recommendations involve retrofits of existing infrastructure such as raising existing bridges. Fencing to funnel animals into the crossing structures is also a consideration to maximize their efficacy.

Fairbank said she and her fellow authors also decided to include two sites that weren't included in their initial data collection after a nighttime collision last December between a semi-truck and a herd of bison resulted in the death of 13 animals. That incident drew national attention and spurred the Buffalo Field Campaign to petition the U.S. Interior Department to build a "buffalo bridge" over U.S. 191. As of Oct. 10, more than 76,000 people had signed that petition.

Laying out recommendations to reduce bison-vehicle collisions is tricky, Fairbank said, because there's little, if any, research examining what kind of structures bison might use. (Different species prefer different kinds of crossings - some prefer the cover and security of underpasses, for example, while others like the long, open-sight distances of short, wide overpasses.) Research gaps and uncertainty surrounding tolerance for bison outside the park boundary explain why the study recommends further investigation into those stretches of the highway, she said.

Gallatin Wildlife Association President Clint Nagel said his organization intends to submit a proposal to a recently launched program that seeks to identify wildlife-vehicle collision hotspots and Montana communities motivated to install new infrastructure or retrofit existing structures to make them safer and more wildlife-friendly. GWA is planning to pitch state agencies on a crossing of the Madison River toward the southern end of Gallatin County to make that area safer for bison, he said.

"What a waste of life," Nagel said in reference to the December 2022 incident. "My heart goes out to the wildlife that are trying to survive. They're basically getting more and more isolated and penned up due to their lack of access to larger landscapes."

MDT Environmental Services Bureau Chief Tom Martin said the Montana Wildlife and Transportation Partnership program didn't receive any applications during its initial application cycle in May but is anticipating "at least a few" in the second round, which opens Nov. 1 and closes Nov. 30.

Martin added that he's aware of six groups in various planning stages that plan to spotlight projects that could use mitigation measures. Another cycle will open in 2024.

Fairbank said U.S. Highway 89, another highway bisecting the GYE between the Yellowstone gateway communities of Gardiner and Livingston, is receiving a similar treatment to U.S. 191. A report outlining stretches of that highway that could be candidates for wildlife crossings is expected later this year, she said. That study is being conducted in partnership with Yellowstone Safe Passages. As with the U.S. 191 and MT 64 project, there's a citizen science component where residents and motorists are encouraged to record sightings of alive or dead wildlife along the roadway.

CLLC is hosting three meetings in Gallatin County to discuss the US. 191 and MT 64 study. The Bozeman-based non-profit will be in Big Sky on Monday, Oct. 23, Gallatin Gateway on Thursday, Nov. 9, and West Yellowstone on Wednesday, Nov. 15. All meetings are scheduled for 5:45 p.m. to 7 p.m.

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