Making It Safer for Animals to Cross the Road

Could NC build a wildlife corridors on 1-40?

January 9, 2020 

A 20-mile stretch between Asheville and Newport, TN is deadly for wildlife

It’s time again for that never-ending question: “why did the (insert animal here) cross the road?” If you answered, “to get to the other side”, you are correct. However, getting to the other side is becoming more and more dangerous for wildlife in North Carolina.

It’s especially dangerous for bears, deer, and even elk in two areas in the western part of the state: Interstate 40 in the Pigeon River Gorge, a 20-mile area about midway between Asheville and Newport, Tennessee, and U.S. 19 between Maggie Valley and Cherokee. Authorities report the increased wildlife traffic combined with the growing numbers of cars and trucks on the road is leading to more animal-vehicle collisions. Those crashes result in animal deaths and human injuries in addition to car repairs.

More people, more traffic, more bear deaths

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission says since May 2018, there have been 25 bear fatalities in the Pigeon River Gorge area and 10 additional fatalities across the Tennessee border. In 2017 the commission reports 33 bear fatalities on I-40 in WNC and 21 in Buncombe County. And the problem is only going to get worse. The population in the western part of the state is growing. The numbers of tourists are growing as well. And don’t forget, the populations of bear, deer and elk are also increasing.

“We’re trying to improve wildlife’s ability to safely get across the road which will also improve public safety,” said Jeffrey Hunter, senior program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association in its Asheville office. He works on issues related to the National Park Service and is especially focused on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“It’s a busy corridor and the problem is only going to get worse,” Hunter adds.

Wildlife corridors to provide safe passage for animals

That’s why there is a growing consensus that building wildlife corridors; which could include highway overpasses, underpasses, culverts and fencing, would benefit animals and people. The corridors provide animals with a safe crossing across a road that interrupted their habitat. The idea has been discussed for years. Hunter tells the Asheville Citizen Times almost a dozen groups are working on the project. They include the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, N.C. Wildlife Federation, Wildlands Network, NPCA, Defenders of Wildlife, Wilderness Society and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Officials from the Departments of Transportation in North Carolina and Tennessee are also involved.

At a meeting in October 2019, the groups agreed more study of specific animal movement patterns in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee is needed to better understand where wildlife crossings would be most effective. Several studies involving elk and bears with radio collars to track their movements are already underway.

Meanwhile, NC DOT officials say some type of wildlife crossing is planned for the widening of Sweeten Creek Road in South Asheville. There have been many vehicle-wildlife incidents along the roadway. However, there are no plans for corridors in the widening of I-240 in West Asheville. Officials say the urban nature of the project doesn’t require such crossings. The group is also looking at how bears appear to have created a kind of land bridge over the double tunnel on I-40 in the Pidgeon River Gorge that allows them to safely cross the highway.

“There needs to be a lot more of that kind of situation,” said Mike Pelton, professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee who has studied black bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “The simplest solution is building fencing to funnel animals to culverts flowing underneath I-40 where it crosses streams.”

However, all these options cost money. The question becomes whether society can afford NOT to do something. Climate change means more animals will likely be on the move. And as biologists warn, bears, elk and other animals don’t understand what a highway is. To animals, a highway is simply a barrier that must be crossed to reach better food, water, or even a mate on the other side.

—Frank Graff 

 Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.