Importance of Natural Resources

400 Miles to Cross: The Interstate 80 Wildlife Barrier


Wyoming: This is the stronghold for giant
herds of pronghorn that migrate 100 miles. Elk range from the mountains to the deserts. And the mule deer make some of the longest
migrations in all of North America. But thousands of animals undertake these amazing
journeys only to get stuck along this road. Interstate 80 acts like a 400-mile barrier
for migratory wildlife. It’s the open road for us, but not for them. To the animals, it’s one giant roadblock. I’m a writer and filmmaker. I work with the Wyoming biologists that track
big game migrations. In 2012, they used GPS to identify the longest
mule deer migration corridor in the United States – up to 150 miles from Hoback Basin
to the Red Desert. But at the southern end of this corridor,
the biologists noticed thousands of mule deer abruptly stop their migration at Interstate 80. The road also interrupts elk and pronghorn
movements, cutting off access to habitat. If we could help wildlife get across Interstate-80, how much better would it be for animals, and for people? It’s one thing to look at migration data
on the map. It’s another to see it up close and personal. That’s why my friend Leon and I went on
an Interstate-80 road trip to visit with migration experts to learn the stories behind the data. And along the way we set up wildlife cameras,
so that pronghorn and deer can show us what’s really going on through their eyes. As we set out on our journey, the animals
were making theirs. It’s mid-October, and this is the time of
year when animals are moving down from the mountains, and coming into this desert where
they’ll group up along Interstate 80. To survive in this harsh landscape of mountains
and plains, they need to migrate, sometimes hundreds of miles, to avoid snow or find forage. There is a whole history of why this area
is really important for people and animals. Southern Wyoming really ties this country
together. It’s a desert gap surrounded by higher mountains,
a low point on the continental divide. This geography is the main reason why big
game animals and Native American hunters have moved through this area for thousands of years. About 200 years ago, fur trappers came through
Shoshone land. Then the Army came, the railroad in 1868,
and the Lincoln highway in 1913. This route was the obvious place to build
the interstate. In 1970 the last section of Interstate 80
in Wyoming was completed. The road now sees about 13,000 vehicles a
day. That’s about one every nine seconds. Unfortunately, the east—west migration of people blockaded the unseen north—south migration for wildlife. It was unintentional, but we disrupted the
connectivity of the habitat. I’m here with biologist Hank Henry who did a lot of mule deer research in this area back in the 1970s. So what was it like to see the mule deer migrating
across at that time? There were quite a few of them. It was real historic. We documented over 1,000 were coming across
this stretch of road there at Dana Ridge. We were averaging 50-60 deer deaths per year,
and the highway was a lot of times iced over and cars couldn’t stop, so it wasn’t pretty. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, before
the highway was even built, recommended tunnels that were 10 foot by 10 foot and a hundred
yards long because they realized it was a heavy deer migration area. The deer were reluctant to use those. An exclusion fence eight feet high was put
in along both sides of the highway… However, they went around the end of the fence,
then they could get across the highway, and that was a big problem right there. I would get up every so often in the night,
patrol the fence with spotlights. If I see deer, I would shoot roman candles
at them to move them back. I couldn’t patrol it 24 hours a day, and
we had 33 deer killed within the fence. But they eventually started using the
machinery underpass, that’s the one that most all of the deer were migrating through. They could look up and see the sky. It was a real quick through-and-out. In the whole 400-mile stretch of highway in Wyoming, they are some of the only structures that exist. If you are going to keep the deer off the
road, you’ve gotta allow them a solution to migrate. Since the late ‘70s when Hank Henry did
this work, there has been a renaissance in wildlife tracking and mapping. Researchers have now documented many more
migrations north and south, and many day-to-day movements, nearly all of which come to the
Interstate and stop. Through decades of data, animals show us that
I-80 is a massive barricade. It adds unnecessary challenges to their survival,
ultimately making herds less resilient. Most of the time the traffic is so heavy that
animals don’t even try to cross. Up to six lanes of travel, as well as the
railroad tracks, make a nearly impassable barrier for wildlife. That means they can’t move to the right habitat at the right times, which is their most important adaptation. To hear about that, I visited Mark Zornes,
the wildlife coordinator with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Green River. Pronghorn are avoiding that snow by drifting
in a direction where conditions are better, towards Flaming Gorge Reservoir. There is a rain shadow effect there, less
snow, less harsh conditions, but unfortunately in this case, they hit Interstate 80, which
kind of prevents them from making that migration. Mark told me about an event in 2017 that was a nightmare version of what Hank Henry saw 40 years ago. So it was a bad winter, we had several pronghorn
enter this right-of-way. Foggy morning, we had a semi-truck eastbound
that was traveling too fast for conditions. The gentleman hit about 25 pronghorn, and
killed all those animals. And believe me those are really bad days to
be a wildlife biologist. We get to deal with either the dead animals
or, or actually put down those that are injured. What are some of the solutions that would
work for crossing on interstate 80? Pronghorn do not like using our deer underpasses
they don’t like using little tunnels. They want to be able to see. They want it to be open and expansive, and
unfortunately for pronghorn the solution is an overpass, which are much expensive to build,
but ultimately, I mean, if that’s what we are trying to achieve, we need to find the
money, and do the right thing. Every year there are a couple hundred wildlifevehicle collisions along I-80, and 6,000 across the state Wyoming. These accidents can be deadly for people,
and they cost upwards of $50 million in damage every year. So we’re already paying for this situation,
big time. The good news, is that Wyoming has already
found solutions that work remarkably well. And to hear about that we came to Pinedale
to meet Pete Hallsten, a WYDOT engineer who helped lead the Trapper’s Point Project. So what was this stretch of road like before
this was built? Well every year spring and fall the animals
migrate through here so it was like running a gauntlet with all the traffic. There was a lot of risk for motorists. A lot of risks for the animals. So we decided to build a series of grade-separated
crossings for the animals. Six underpasses, two overpasses, and about
12 miles of the tall fence. When we first started seeing the animals across, and seeing the film of the big groups, it was really exciting. In the first three years, there were 60,000
safe wildlife crossings. We reduced mule deer collisions by about 79
percent, and pronghorn collisions dropped to zero. It was every bit as much about connectivity
as it was about the money. The Trappers Point Project was about $9.7
million dollars, but we think it would pay for itself over the first ten years, because
each animal-vehicle collision costs about $11,000 dollars in property damage, and every deer that didn’t get hit is worth about $3,000 to the state. We learned a lot things from this project. We needed to manage both daily movements and
migration kind of issues. You really need all the tools in the toolbox:
the fence, the overpasses and the underpasses, to address the issues that you have. And the what is going to really help us in
the future, and especially on I-80, is the relationships that we developed with the biologists
and the NGOs. Successful projects involve combined efforts
of the public, Wyoming Department of Transportation, Wyoming Game and Fish, and federal agencies,
and also the private landowners that have stewarded migration corridors for generations. Wildlife crossings work, and they are popular
with motorists and hunting groups like the Muley Fanatic Foundation. They recently supported a new state law creating
a license plate to fund wildlife connectivity projects. We hear from a lot of Wyoming folks who want
to see more wildlife crossings especially on I-80. I think as a state we’re going to chip away
at it and make it happen. Interstate-80 remains the single biggest barrier,
and the hardest to fix. But then I think about all the amazing things
that people have done here. It only took about two years to build the railroad across all of Wyoming, and that was in the 1860s. If we could do that then, certainly we can
fix these wildlife issues today. We’ve already put in successful crossings
at Trappers Point, Nugget Canyon, and Baggs, and we’re starting to look at it all across
the state. Let’s learn from what we’ve done, and
also take inspiration from others. Canada has done this in Banff National Park,
and so has the State of Washington. On Interstate 80, Nevada has built some amazing
structures and, Utah has a brand-new wildlife overpass completed in 2019. But here in Wyoming, crossings could benefit
tens of thousands of animals, and reconnect some of the longest migrations that are left
in the United States. By working together, we can build crossing structures that will keep Wyoming wild long into the future.


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