If you’ve traveled on Interstate 40 between Asheville and Knoxville recently, you know that there are some construction not far from the border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But what exactly is happening?
First of all, the North Carolina Department of Transportation has been preparing for some time to replace five bridges in the Pigeon River Gorge over the course of about five years. At the same time that this was being planned, a group of regional organizations began discussing what could be done about the rising wildlife mortality – as many as 77 dead bears in 2021 alone – along the 28 miles of road that includes planned bridges. replacing.
This group became known as Safe Passage: I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project, and the North Carolina and Tennessee Departments of Transportation became active members of the collaboration.
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An extensive three-year study in the strait by the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA) and the Wildlands Network involved fitting elk with GPS collars to track their movements and using hundreds of wildlife cameras to determine where many animal species were attempting to cross and where they had been killed in vehicular collisions. This research showed that these scheduled bridge alternatives provided excellent opportunities to incorporate some improvements to help wildlife cross the highway using structures that have been shown to reduce wildlife deaths in other parts of the United States and around the world.
“The contractor opened the new bridge over Cold Spring Creek ahead of schedule in mid-May,” said Jeffrey Hunter, Safe Passage facilitator and senior program manager for the NPCA. “NCDOT advised me that there will be some slope closures due to ongoing drainage work at Harmon Den, but now that the bridge is reopened, work on improving wildlife can begin.”
Hunter says these improvements at the Harmon Den exit will include seating to create parallel paths on and on either side of Cold Springs Creek that allow animals to navigate under the bridge. This is especially important for larger species such as elk and deer because a large riprap previously blocked their passage. A wildlife fence up to 10 feet high will be used to guide animals into a safe lane in conjunction with one-way jump holes in the wildlife fence that allow animals to get off the highway. Livestock keepers will also be used to prevent ungulates (elk and deer) from walking on and off the slopes.
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“Our first priority recommendation is to replace the sewers under the I-40 west entrance ramp and the eastbound exit ramp,” Hunter said. “The arches are currently too small to overtake the elk and replacing them with larger canals will allow all the wildebeest to avoid crossing the slopes in and out of class.”
To enable people to contribute their money to the wildlife crossing business of the future, seven Safe Passage partner organizations have formed the Safe Passage Fund Alliance. But federal and state funding is also needed to support DOTs at the state level.
On June 2, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper met with Safe Passage Trust Alliance partners and other advocates of action for a roundtable discussion on the importance of wildlife crossings in the state. Hunter began the meeting by introducing the alliance and its mission, then highlighted the group’s scientists and researchers, who explained how the data collected could be used to inform decisions about future wildlife crossing sites.
Three students from FernLeaf Community Charter School in Fletcher presented messages crafted during an educational unit on the road environment – how plants and animals are affected by roads. Their lessons, hosted by Defenders of Wildlife and the Safe Passage Fund Coalition, included a field trip to the Pigeon River Gorge to see firsthand how Safe Passage works to make I-40 safer and to read the chapter book “A Search for Safe Passage” (Great Smoky Mountain Association, 2021). ).
The group asserted that North Carolina could become a leader in the wildlife crossing business in the eastern United States, raising the state’s profile nationally by improving safety for travelers through flag-driven transit structures. The governor agreed.
“It’s great to see Governor Cooper support Safe Passage, and it’s especially exciting to see young people helping bring about the change we all want to see,” Hunter said. “We now have strong bipartisan support to address this seemingly intractable problem.”
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While Hunter says the issues with dead bears on I-40 remain – “We’ve had three dead bears in the past 10 days!” He notes that there are many other hotspots for wildlife mortality throughout the state.
“The cultural shift within NCDOT is the big story,” he said. “The agency is looking at normalizing addressing wildlife conflict in its statewide projects, just as it will address wetlands or other design challenges when building roads.”
But Hunter stressed that the two states’ Departments of Transportation still need dedicated resources to conduct feasibility studies on research-driven recommendations. Our region requires federal transportation infrastructure support to make crossing wildlife not an anomaly but the norm, he said.
The full Pigeon River Gorge Research Report will be released to the public in the next 2-3 months. In the meantime, those interested can learn more with a free virtual chat that Hunter will give at 1 p.m. Friday, June 17, as part of the Science at Sugarlands series hosted by Discover Life in America, a nonprofit partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Register in dlia.org/sas To receive a zoom link.
Frances Wiegart is editor of the biannual magazine “Smokies Life” and director of creative services for the 29,000-member Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit education partner in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can reach her at email@example.com and learn more at SmokeiesInformation.org.