Creating safer crossings for people and wildlife across the Yellowstone to Yukon region
Given shared priorities between the United States and Canada to advance infrastructure that will keep people and wildlife safe and support 30×30 (America the Beautiful) and climate resiliency in the Rocky Mountain U.S./Canada transboundary region, Y2Y hosted a virtual gathering to share vision, progress, and next steps from experts working to advance safe wildlife passage across major highways in the region.
At a webinar held Nov. 9, 2021, presentations by Indigenous Peoples, conservation organizations, scientists, and state, provincial, and federal agencies explored what’s been done, what’s currently planned, and what’s needed on four of the busiest roads in the transboundary Yellowstone to Yukon region: I-90 and highway 93 in Montana, Canada’s highway 3 and highway 1. Following this discussion, it is clear there is momentum, interest, and shared priorities.
All this comes on the heels of three big pieces of news:
- Crossing structure work on B.C.’s Highway 3 is the subject of a cover story in Canadian Geographic’s November/December issue;
- The Alberta Ministry of Transportation announced that the Bow Valley Gap overpass project east of Canmore on Highway 1 has entered the construction bid phase; and
- A historic infrastructure bill passed in the U.S. making major commitments to spending on wildlife crossings and corridors.
While we still await more details around which projects the U.S. infrastructure bill funding of $350 million will support, we know it means a lot for wildlife and humans who will all be safer after including more animal-friendly infrastructure in the United States.
This is the largest investment in wildlife crossings in American history, and we here at Y2Y are excited by the prospect of working with governments, partners, and communities to make these projects a reality.
During the webinar, speakers highlighted collaborative efforts on connectivity across these major roads. It was inspiring to see the breadth of vision, work, and approaches in the transboundary Yellowstone to Yukon region. As Sarah Palmer, Y2Y’s conservation director, stated in her closing remarks, we have an opportunity right now to work together to make roads safer for people and wildlife in one of the world’s most intact mountain regions.
“We have an opportunity right now to work together to make roads safer for people and wildlife in one of the world’s most intact mountain regions.”— Sarah Palmer, Y2Y director of conservation programs during the transportation webinar
Themes that emerged from the event include the advances in this region currently happening through collaboration, and a recognition of the opportunity to seriously advance safe wildlife passage by building on the incredible work that has already been done by so many different people, agencies, and organizations.
Additionally, the importance of understanding the land and the cultural connections to the landscape was also recognized.
Finally, the importance of connectivity was a strong theme across all speakers including connecting people and habitat.
The Yellowstone to Yukon region has at least 117 structures facilitating safe passage for wildlife across roads and some of the most renowned and well-studied projects, but more work is needed here.
Some next steps that Y2Y will explore include:
- When Covid allows, offering a field trip to the priority areas on these highways, and
- Developing mechanisms to support ongoing informal coordination among projects.
The webinar was four hours of great speakers, presentations, and discussions. In the interest of sharing some of the lessons, here is a brief summary of each of the panels throughout the day.
Jodi Hilty, Y2Y’s president and chief scientist, shared the importance of working to enhance connectivity in one of the most intact large mountain ecosystems in the world. Wildlife move across large areas, spanning borders, boundaries, and jurisdictions. Conservation for wide-ranging wildlife requires us to think at a large landscape scale. Crossing structures in Banff National Park and on highway 93 on the CSKT Reservation represent some of the most progressive and extensive wildlife crossing projects in North America. By following science and Indigenous knowledge, maybe we can work together in this transboundary region to make it safe for people and wildlife.
Panel 1: Roads and Indigenous Peoples
Whisper Camel-Means of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) underscored the importance of spirit of place, and the road as a visitor in the larger landscape. She shared how CSKT worked with the state of Montana and the Federal Highway Administration to design a reconstructed section of highway 93 to accommodate safety for drivers, connectivity for wildlife, and include CSKT culture and language. Whisper also highlighted additional needed work on highway 93 including planned wildlife crossing structures and the challenges of moving forward with building these structures over sensitive and important wetlands on the Reservation.
Filmmaker Jarret Twoyoungmen of the Stoney Nakoda First Nations shared of the importance of storytelling and the human connection to wildlife and the land. He highlighted that safe passage across highways is important for people and animals as connected equals. Stoney Nakoda people move along the same travel routes as wildlife. Highways and borders can make travel more difficult for Indigenous Peoples too, and that there is a need for more crossing structures outside national parks in Canada.
The Stoney Nakoda AV Club partnered with Y2Y to create a short film about wildlife crossings, which was also shown. Watch the short film and learn more about the partnership.
Panel 2: Federal, state and provincial government perspectives
Tom Martin of the Montana Department of Transportation shared several efforts underway to improve human and wildlife safety across highways. A local collaborative effort in the Missoula region is exploring opportunities to improve safe wildlife movement across key stretches of Interstate 90 and there is a growing statewide partnership between Montana Department of Transportation; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; and the Montanans for Safe Wildlife Passage coalition to advance solutions throughout the state.
One striking image came from a map and story shared by Tom Martin of Montana Department of Transportation and Cecily Costello of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks showing a collared grizzly bear who successfully crossed Montana’s I-90 after 46 attempts in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, demonstrating the huge challenge we face with I-90 as a barrier to connectivity across the Yellowstone to Yukon region.
Trevor Kinley of Parks Canada highlighted the history of crossing structures in Banff beginning in the early 1980s, which have reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions by over 80 percent. At least 15,000 animals use the crossings every year, and genetic data shows the structures have reconnected grizzly bear populations. He notes that while overpasses are costlier, they have the greatest ecological benefit, and can serve as an anchor in key landscape positions with a lot of wildlife movement such as major river valleys.
Duane Wells of B.C’s Ministry of Transportation shared highway 3’s Reconnecting the Rockies project to fence 27 kilometers of highway and incorporate wildlife movement under existing bridges and build an overpass near the B.C./Alberta border. This overpass will also go over the railway, which is vitally important for wildlife movement but unfortunately rare for overpasses to include both a highway and a rail line.
Stephen Legaree from Alberta’s Ministry of Transportation shared advancements in technology, including the Alberta Wildlife Watch collision tracker for department staff and highways contractors. Alberta is planning to implement crossing structures and fencing projects on highway 1 and 3, and are currently testing a new wildlife detection system on highway 22.
Panel 3: Science to action
Wildlife scientist Clayton Lamb highlighted the importance of creating working landscapes that work for people and wildlife. Connectivity will need to be facilitated as climate change and human actions affect the landscape. There is existing infrastructure that also poses a risk to people and wildlife. His presentation highlighted how the transborder region of the Purcells and Rockies is a critical link for wildlife in this context. This area has been researched extensively and we know where the challenges are, and know where the solutions lie.
Cecily Costello of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks shared that both transportation agencies and wildlife management agencies share a common mission to support quality of life for people, and that healthy wildlife populations contribute greatly to our quality of life. Connectivity is key for grizzly bear recovery, and highways are significant barriers to movement between ecosystems. The number of grizzly bears killed by motor vehicle accidents has been increasing over time, especially outside the recovery zones as bears expand their range. Grizzly bears roaming beyond the recovery zones are being repelled by busy highways, especially I-90. The solution is wildlife crossing structures.
John Waller of the National Park Service challenged us to think boldly about solutions to the interactions between roads and wildlife, and encouraged deeper collaboration between engineers and wildlife biologists to advance creative solutions. There has been much progress made to date, and as traffic volumes increase and we look for engineering solutions to move people and goods across the country, we have an opportunity to explore transformative solutions that can support people and wildlife, and “commit resources to designing effective crossing opportunities and implementing them in a coordinated way across the landscape.”
Liz Fairbank of the Center for Large Landscape Conservation shared how NGOs can support this work through adding capacity, including support for monitoring wildlife movement, conserving private lands on either side of crossing structures, building community support, contributing to science and research, fostering collaboration, and helping to shape policies and bring funding. In the U.S., there has been an opportunistic approach rather than systematic planning, but systematic planning is needed and there is hope for this with the recent passage of the infrastructure bill.
Tony Clevenger shared the 17-year history of partnerships and research that has advanced the crossing structure network in Banff National Park. A long-term research project began in 1996 prior to twinning of the highway. This research identified the TransCanada highway as a major stressor for wildlife. This was an important and unique situation that could be a worldwide example, and now is. Early on, there was a lot of skepticism about cost and efficacy. Research showing the value both for wildlife and as a cost-effective solution has changed public opinion. Since then, collaboration between practitioners and biologists has increased. The Banff project has inspired subsequent projects including highway 93 in Montana, and even an overpass built for jaguars in Argentina, highlighting the importance of sharing information. The I-90 project in the Washington Cascades can serve as a model for the rest of the highway through Idaho and Montana. These are “last chance landscapes” where if we wait five to ten years to act, it could be too late.
Karyn Vandervort of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) noted in closing remarks that we are all connected through the landscape. She encouraged everyone to read the text of the recently passed infrastructure legislation. FHWA will be administering a new grants program for wildlife crossing safety. There will be a lot of stakeholder outreach as development of this program progresses. It’s a new horizon for Federal Highways with this new national program. Montana and other states have proven this can be done at the state level, and today is the start of collaborative efforts across the country to develop the new program.
In closing, Y2Y’s Sarah Palmer highlighted that we have an opportunity right now to work together to make roads safer for people and wildlife.