On October 30, 2013, we met with Marcel Huisjer, a Research Ecologist with the Western Transportation Institute. He took us to see the diverse wildlife corridors along U.S. Highway 93 North. We met Marcel in Evaro, MT at the Grey Wolf Peak Casino. Looking north from the casino, you can see the massive wildlife overpass, the only overpass on The People’s Way Project.
Highway 93 N was the original travel route for native tribes from the Bitterroot Valley to Flathead Lake and was referred to as The People’s Way, which gave name to the project. The project’s 56-mile stretch of highway from Evaro to Polson, MT is on tribal land, thus, the Salish and Kootenai tribes have worked closely with the Transportation Institute to insure safe passages for wildlife on the Flathead Reservation.
Similar projects in Florida, Washington, Arizona, and Canada were used as models when designing the wildlife passages in Western Montana. Today, the wildlife corridor project along U.S. HWY 93 N is the largest highway/wildlife thoroughfare project in the United States.
Marcel spoke to the fact that American highway systems focus solely on human connectivity, all while segmenting wildlife habitats with impermeable, multi-lane roads. High vehicle speeds, sudden and reoccurring loud volumes, and human presence are all factors that can deter wildlife from crossing paved roadways. Numerous fatalities occur from wildlife-vehicle collisions every year. While the death of a western painted turtle poses little threat to a human or the vehicle, a moose often causes more harm to the driver and vehicle than to itself in a collision. Animals need safe and reliable means of access between highways to maintain healthy generational integrity. To quote the People’s Way website, “connectivity allows areas to be recolonized, for dispersal, for maintaining regional metapopulations and minimizing risks of inbreeding within populations.”
We drove about 8 miles north toward Arlee to look at stream culverts (2 of the 41 along the 56-mile project), an underpass culvert (1 of 40), the wildlife crossing guard, a
jump-out wall (1 of 39), and of course, the overpass. All five methods of wildlife channels were at separate stops along the highway. Marcel said that a stream culvert can be limiting in that the route of the stream is pre-determined by the placement of the culvert. However, a half-culvert, or a culvert without an impermeable bottom, allows the stream ecology to deepen over time, which strengthens the stream hydrology and the fish ecology. The underpass culverts were created to be large enough to allow large ungulates like a moose to feel comfortable crossing. Marcel noted that it is important to not only create an underpass wide enough for the biggest animal to fit but, to allow more room for said creature to feel safe enough to actually use the corridor (which can be a challenging calculation). A wildlife crossing guard is a larger and wider version of a cattle guard. The 8’ tall wildlife exclusion fences bordering the highway must break at private roads and turnoffs. To prevent all wildlife from funneling to the openings in the fences at these private roads and turnoffs, the crossing guards act as the ground barrier. The jump-out walls, as Marcel referred to it, are chunks of land supported by a wall of pavers, elevated at the intersections of the wildlife exclusions fences that allow wildlife to jump back to safety should they be stuck roadside.
We were lucky enough to stand on top of the overpass. The overpass is 49’ wide and 197’ long. It has a dramatic incline to the top of the arch. This has made some wildlife weary of crossing. As we experienced, you are not able to see to the other side until you reach the top. Both sides of the overpass are bordered with the 8’ tall wildlife exclusion fences. Woody debris has been strategically placed along the fence line and intermittently throughout the width of the pass to create cover for the smaller critters. Animals both big and small can use the overpass.
Marcel uses motion-sensor cameras at each crossing to record the traffic flow (frequency) and type (species). So far, his cameras have captured moose, deer, river otters, mountain lions, bobcats, black bear, turkey and even a domestic dog using the passageways.
Marcel was pleased to inform us that collision fatalities have decreased significantly since the project was completed and monitoring will continue to cater to the wildlife and adjust corridor structures as needed.
Because this is such a new project, there are still some kinks to work out. Although the camera monitoring has recorded a high usage of the overpass, a small 3 ft cattle-exclusion fence and fear of the unknown seems to prevent elk from crossing. Our very own Morgan LaPointe recommended moving the fence to the highest point of the arch, so the elk and other wildlife have a chance to see what is on the other side. Her idea was well received and Marcel said he would bring it up in his next meeting. Another problem Marcel brought up was the fight with private property owners. The 8’ wildlife exclusion fence bordering the highway stops about ½ mile in each direction (on each side of the highway) due to land rights. The idea for the fencing is to direct wildlife to the safe corridors and to deter them from the highway. Marcel feels that the fence length is too short. He hopes to extend the fence length to further insure the safety of wildlife in the near future. This project has had great success and a project on U.S. highway 93 South between Florence and Hamilton is underway to be completed in 2015.