Wildlife Highway Crossings

Photo captions, top left, clockwise: Elk beside a hwy in Alberta; a snapping turtle laying eggs on the shoulder of a road; a wildlife crossing sign (kudu) in Namibia; the Hwy 69 crossing, photo courtesy of MTO; a white-tailed deer crossing a hwy; a white timber wolf on the TransCanada hwy east of Kenora.


Below is my last/latest column in Ontario Out of Doors magazine (submitted, unedited version). But first, a bit of a preamble.

Wildlife getting killed on highways is a huge issue in Canada, as elsewhere, but Canada, despite being an ‘advanced, G7’ nation, doesn’t worry too much about it. Except in and around Banff National Park, where highway overpasses, underpasses and fencing have done a great job in reducing wildlife fatalities and improving habitat connectivity to the benefit of many, many species.

I live in northwestern Ontario, a bit less than a 50 km hike to the Manitoba boundary on the TransCanada hwy. There is a plan to twin this section of highway, something that has been in the planning stage for about a decade, but to date, not much has happened in the way of construction. Lots of delays, for lots of reasons.

I was the Biologist (I’m now retired) for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR; now the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry; MNRF) when the project got started and was the MNR liaison with the Ministry of Transportation (MTO), the lead on the project. Because fisheries are mostly a Federal responsibility, MNR let the feds deal with that. For the most part, our concerns were the impacts of the twinning on wildlife.

At the time, I had information, including maps, on radio-tagged wolves that showed wolves (timber, or gray wolves) travelling from the interior of Manitoba, into Ontario, across Lake of the Woods and ending up in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. They crossed the TransCanada hwy about halfway between Kenora and the Mb boundary.

This stretch of highway sees hundreds of transport trucks every week (it’s the TransCanada Highway!!) and the number of deer, bears, moose and wolves – and smaller animals – that become roadkill is astounding. I and MNR thought that some fencing and, at the least, some wildlife underpasses (the best case scenario would have included an overpass), were warranted for the twinning.

One day, when I was out on the highway with consultants hired by MTO, I was explaining why wildlife crossings on this stretch of highway was an issue we at MNR wished to see addressed. At one point, we were standing on the shoulder of the highway where a significant creek flowed beneath it. I suggested this would be a good place for an underpass (incorporated with the creek and fencing), which the consultants said was quite a reasonable request – as we were discussing the issue further I looked up and saw a wolf crossing the highway. Everyone saw it.

However, MTO officials, despite the urging of the consultants they hired, told MNR such structures weren’t in the cards – ‘too expensive’ they said. One of the consultants later told me the MTO in this Region were ‘dinosaurs’ with respect to their environmental outlook.

Since then, I’ve appealed to sitting Members of the present  provincial government  – in person, at meetings I’ve been invited to – but the response is the same as it was during the last administration – ‘too expensive’.

Because of concern for the ‘environment’, Canada spends billions on windmills and solar arrays – which is mostly simply virtue signalling – Canada’s CO2 emissions (for those who think this is an issue) are miniscule (if Canada ceased to exist, total CO2 emissions on a world-wide basis would drop by 1 or 2%).

But spending a couple of million dollars (a couple of windmills) on fencing and underpasses – on the TransCanada Highway! – would actually have a meaningful, positive, environmental impact by substantially reducing needless wildlife fatalities (and possibly save human lives; plus reducing auto collision costs).

Interestingly, there was a photo in the local paper back when the project was first proposed showing demonstrators from one of the local First Nations (they were/are opposed to the twinning) holding a placard that said something along the lines of ‘Save Our Moose’.

It seems unlikely that any wildlife friendly structures will be incorporated into the highway twinning project and in my opinion, that’s shameful.

I couldn’t put that all this info in the column. There are ‘rules’ . . .

Anyway, here’s what I did send in. Not all of it made it into print.

Wildlife Highway Crossings

Road safety for humans is a big issue; many lives are lost on roadways. In Ontario, like everywhere, safety efforts have focused – rightly – on preventing human injury. Until relatively recently, only minimal attention has been given to the well-being of other species.

It’s been estimated that more than a million vertebrates a day are killed on roads in the USA. In Canada, the numbers are less, but still staggering.

And it’s not just roadkill. There’s a direct loss of habitat every time a road is built. Habitats are fragmented, reducing its value for many. Noise from traffic is a major wildlife disruption. Roads also give predators – not all human – access to areas previously inaccessible.

Planning can mitigate some issues around wildlife habitat, but it’s virtually impossible to eliminate roadkill. Efforts to simply minimize roadkill can be very expensive.

To mitigate wildlife highway collisions, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) collects collision data and maps where large animals have a high risk of being hit and models species at risk reptile habitat to identify collision hotspots. In some instances, MTO erects exclusion to keep wildlife off highways and to direct wildlife to crossing structures. Signs (e.g., deer crossing signs) are commonly used to warn travelers to watch out for wildlife.

To date, MTO has done fencing for large wildlife at 25 locations and 18 locations for reptiles. They have installed 26 large wildlife underpasses and 63 species at risk underpasses.

Presently, there are two highway overpasses for wildlife in Ontario. There’s one on Hwy 69 south of Sudbury, primarily for large animals; there’s another that spans Highway 401 and Highway 3 at the Rt. Hon. Herb Gray Parkway near Windsor, for snakes and deer.

MTO says the Hwy 69 crossing is used “primarily by large wildlife” and that monitoring has shown a ‘73% decrease in collisions with large mammals’ (mostly deer, moose) ‘within the section where the overpass, underpasses and wildlife fencing occur’. Deer and bear occasionally get around, over or under the fencing.

Monitoring of the Windsor area overpass “has shown the successful use of the wildlife passage.”

Elk have not made use of the Hwy 69 wildlife crossings. Laurentian University Biologist Dr. Josef Hamr says that based on “20 years of radio-tracking” the structures are largely south of the elk range (elk were a major driver for the structures). He said MTO was informed of this, but “logistical and financial reasons” became the prime determinant for the wildlife structure locations. Since the 4-laning, Hamr said “16 elk have been killed by vehicles north of the fenced section – that we know of”.

Banff and Yoho National Parks

The first, best known and most studied wildlife highway crossing structures in Canada are those in Banff and Yoho National Parks.

In 1972, plans to twin the Trans-Canada Hwy (TC) through the parks included efforts to mitigate wildlife mortality by vehicle collisions, particularly large mammals. Over a forty year period, six wildlife overpasses, more than 35 underpasses and more or less continuous fencing has been incorporated into 80+ km of the TC.

Biologist Bruce Leeson and engineer Terry Maguire said it’s important to do research, identify what the actual objectives are (e.g., what species are you targeting) and make adjustments when things don’t go exactly as planned. Fencing, for example, was found to have to be at least 2.4 m in height to constrain moose and elk; a buried apron may be necessary to keep animals from squeezing under the fence.

Seventeen years of monitoring data reduced large mammal mortalities by 95% and for wildlife species as a whole by >80%.

Over time, most species learn to use both overpasses and underpasses, although some species do show preference as to which type of crossing they choose to use.

Elsewhere

Although much reduced from bygone years, the wildlife of Africa has no equal. In some countries, much of the wildlife resides on large tracts of private land, which is often fenced.

There is a lot of variation in landowner fence construction, but mostly, it works. On one 80,000 acre enclose I visited in Namibia, there were elephants, rhinos, huge herds of various species of antelope and many other animals.

Fencing in Africa is primarily to contain/manage wildlife for hunting and viewing. But, keeping wildlife off highways is also a big deal. During my travels, the only large animals I saw on roads where fencing was prevalent were warthogs and baboons; however I did see lots of large animals – on the other side of a fence.

I didn’t see any wildlife overpasses, but they do exist.

Fencing and wildlife underpasses and overpasses are becoming increasingly common in the western USA, where there are now hundreds of such structures. The story is similar in Europe, Fennoscandia and, increasingly, in Canada. Reducing collisions with large mammals and proving safe passage for Herptiles (e.g., snakes, frogs, toads and turtles) are top concerns.

Future

While effective and efficient, wildlife crossing structures don’t come cheap. Leeson said integrating environmental protection – primarily wildlife crossing structures – can easily be 30% of the cost of highway construction.

Ecologists and a growing portion of the general public believe integrating modern society with environmental concerns is essential. Ensuring the connectivity of habitat and providing for the passage of wildlife across not only highways, but railroads, pipelines and other infrastructure, is vital.

There’s still a long way to go. Although Ontario appears to be a bit of a laggard, I’m hopeful we’re moving in the right direction.

2 comments
  1. There are also hundreds of kilometers of fencing along the roads of New Brunswick. Based on their design, they appear to be aimed at mitigating moose collisions.

    • Well, that’s good. I wasn’t aware they did that much fencing. But fencing without crossings can be problematic. Do they have crossings?

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