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Safe Passage for Wildlife in Island Park

In Idaho's Island Park community, keeping drivers safe on the region's main highway would be a boon for wildlife connectivity as well.

In Idaho's Island Park community, keeping drivers safe on the region's main highway would be a boon for wildlife connectivity as well.

Wildlife-vehicles collisions are costly for all involved. For the animals crossing roadways in search of food and mates, for the drivers and passengers unlucky enough to be involved in serious accidents, and for the tax-paying public that covers the costly bills.

The reality is that many of these collisions could be prevented; it just takes some foresight and a conscious effort to consider wildlife movement when designing and maintaining our major highways. Getting involved at that early and all-important planning stage is exactly what Y2Y and partners are trying to achieve with the Island Park Safe Wildlife Passage Initiative.

Elk Carcass on Idaho Hwy
Elk carcass on Idaho highway. Photo: Kim Trotter

The initiative may be focused on U.S. Route 20—a busy north-south highway that runs just west of Yellowstone National Park and through Caribou-Targhee National Forest—but the strategy could be applied on any roadway across North America, wherever frequent wildlife crossings put drivers at risk.

Spearheaded by the Henry's Fork Legacy Project, a collection of groups aiming to conserve the rural and natural Idaho's Upper Henry’s Fork region, the initiative is focused on a key stretch of Route 20 through Island Park, where wildlife have been known to cross frequently.

"Route 20 is the first major road that animals encounter as they roam west out of Yellowstone," says Kim Trotter, Y2Y's U.S. Program Director. "It bisects elk and moose migration routes, which means multiple crossings twice a year."

Grizzly bears, wolverines and other wide-ranging species have also been known to cross the highway, she adds, so any collisions with vehicles could have profound negative impacts on those vulnerable populations.

"This is a critical region for wildlife connectivity," says Trotter. "If we can decrease collisions on Route 20, it's a vital step toward maintaining connectivity on a continental scale, and specifically between major protected areas in the southern part of the Yellowstone to Yukon region." 

Map courtesy of Wikipedia
Upper Henry's Fork drainage. Map Courtesy of Wikipedia

With the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) in the early planning stages of upgrading Route 20 in order to increase driver safety, a huge part of that effort will necessarily focus on reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions—especially when you consider that nearly one in four accidents on that highway are caused by wildlife, a proportion that's almost five times the national average.

The ITD recently initiated a public comment process, allowing Island Park community members a unique opportunity to have their say about the project, and to help ensure safe passage for both humans and wildlife on this shared roadway.

"The overwhelming response from the public is that wildlife mitigation matters greatly to them," says Elizabeth Domenech, a Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies graduate student and Y2Y's Island Park Safe Wildlife Passage Coordinator for the summer. "They care about their own safety driving on the highway, and they also see the benefits of maintaining important wildlife corridors," adds Domenech, who attended several community events, including the Island Park Initiative's launch at Idaho's Harriman State Park in early July.

Grizzly with Cubs
Grizzly bear with cubs. Photo: Nicolas Dory

The best way to make Route 20 safer for both people and wildlife is to ensure wildlife mitigation strategies, such as innovative fencing and wildlife overpasses and underpasses, are considered in the project's earliest stages—from early planning and budgeting to design and building.

"Local involvement is crucial throughout the process," says Domenech. "It's the essential ingredient in successfully addressing vehicle-wildlife collisions here and on similar roadways across North America."