Road safety projects protect wildlife, motorists - Albuquerque Journal

Road safety projects protect wildlife, motorists

The New Mexico Transportation and Game and Fish departments drafted a wildlife corridor action plan that proposes 11 new projects across the state to help prevent wildlife-vehicle crashes on highways. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Why did the deer cross the road?

More importantly, did he make it safely to the other side?

To help reduce crashes and connect animal habitat, the New Mexico Transportation and Game and Fish departments have released a draft Wildlife Corridors Action Plan.

Matt Haverland, the transportation department’s wildlife coordinator, said the report is a deep dive into areas with disrupted migration corridors and high rates of wildlife-vehicle collisions.

“It’s pretty crucial that we come up with ways to address this for the safety of traveling public and safety of wildlife,” Haverland said.

The 700-page report focuses on mule deer, elks, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, black bears and cougars.

But the plan also considers smaller fauna like rabbits, foxes, Gila monsters, snakes and javelina.

Crash hotspots

Car crashes with deer and elk topped the state’s collision hotspots in northern and southern New Mexico over the past two decades.

An average of 634 incidents involved deer each year, and 169 involved elk.

“New Mexico’s been collecting all forms of crash data for a few decades now, from either the State Police or local municipalities or sheriff’s departments,” Haverland said. “What we did was take that data and narrow it down to collisions with wildlife.”

U.S. 70 southwest of Ruidoso was the top wildlife-vehicle collision hotspot based on the number of crashes per mile.

The crashes come at a hefty cost – as much as $11 million in property damage and injuries across the state in 2019.

Dollar values assigned to injured or killed animals also climbed into the millions.

Wildlife corridors

Corridors outlined in the report connect separate animal populations and are used by herds to find seasonal or alternative food, water, mates and habitat.

Game and Fish uses GPS and radio collars to track movement of big game herds and pinpoint major corridors, said spokesperson Tristanna Bickford.

“Our biologists determine the best number of animals to put collars on based on the likelihood of if they’ll stay together in a group or split off,” Bickford said. “We’re regularly collaring deer, elk and pronghorn.”

Game and Fish biologists are currently using this method to track and map seasonal migration patterns for dozens of pronghorn collared east of Chama.

Michael Dax, western program director for the Wildlands Network, said that data can help the state see where fencing needs changed or where lands should be closed to the public during calving or migration seasons.

“A lot of conservation stops at state or international borders,” he said. “Of course these are borders that wildlife do not see, so we need to work on the large landscape scale.”

The Wildlands team has tracked animal movement of 30 different species for two years with trail cameras in southwest New Mexico where Interstate 10 crosses the Peloncillo Mountains into Arizona.

“In the long-term, this area will be key to continental connectivity of jaguars and Mexican wolves, and for reconnecting bighorn sheep habitat,” Dax said.

Fencing at this wildlife passage project that crosses N.M. 333 in Tijeras Canyon near Carnuel directs wildlife under Interstate 40 to avoid vehicle-wildlife collisions. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Safe passage projects

Game and Fish and NMDOT have completed 10 safe wildlife passage projects in the last 20 years – mostly across northern and central New Mexico.

The report lists 11 new priority projects to address crash hotspots and wildlife corridors:

• U.S. 550 north of Cuba

• U.S. 180/NM 90 Silver City

• U.S. 70/NM 48 Ruidoso

• I-25 Glorieta Pass

• U.S. 70 Bent Sacramento Mountains

• U.S. 64/U.S. 84 Tierra Amarilla to Chama and U.S. 84 from Chama to Colorado line

• U.S. 285 Río Grande del Norte National Monument north of Tres Piedras

• I-25, U.S. 64, NM 505, and NM 445 south of Raton to Maxwell

• I-10 Peloncillo Mountains/Steins

• I-25/U.S. 550 Sandia-Jemez Mountains/Bernalillo

• NM 38 Questa to Red River

All the recommended projects include fencing to keep animals off highways and funnel them to crossing structures.

“Many of our existing projects also have wildlife detection systems,” Bickford said. “Those systems can sense an animal’s presence based on body heat and movement, and then there’s a flashing light to alert motorists that there’s wildlife in the area.”

Existing road infrastructure and the regional landscape influenced the crossings chosen for each project.

“Different species are also more likely to use some structures more than others,” Haverland said. “Bighorn sheep are more likely to use overpasses than culverts. Even within species, like with mule deer, those that reside in urban areas may use a smaller culvert than mule deer in a more rural area.”

Funding sources

The proposed projects have price tags ranging from $17 million to $50 million.

Bryan Bird, southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said now is the “opportune time” for New Mexico to take advantage of federal and state funds for wildlife crossings.

Both Defenders of Wildlife and Wildlands Network helped craft the 2019 state law that directed agencies to create the action plan.

“Since humans have built infrastructure including highways and urbanization, animals’ habitat has been sliced and diced into islands of good habitat,” Bird said. “It’s important to us that we facilitate wildlife movement and ensure that our human progress doesn’t impede that.”

The agencies could receive state and federal allocations to fund the crossings.

The recently-passed federal infrastructure package also includes $350 million in competitive grant funds for projects to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions.

States, tribes and municipalities can apply for the grants.

Game and Fish has also requested a $9 million special appropriation from the Legislature.

That money could be used to leverage project funds from the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, a federal bill awaiting a hearing in Congress.

The New Mexico report also proposes cheaper, short-term solutions like smaller fencing projects and warning signs.

“Although they’re expensive, these projects do pay for themselves, from a driver standpoint and with the outdoor recreation economy,” Dax said. “Hunting and wildlife watching are huge pieces of our economy.”

The state agencies contracted with Daniel B. Stephens and Associates to create the plan.

New Mexico university experts and natural resource departments from tribes and pueblos contributed data.

After a two-month public comment period, the group will release the final plan.

“The report included climate change impacts, which was unique, and the economic benefits of protecting wildlife movement in the state,” Bird said. “I don’t think many other states have taken such a hard look at wildlife movement needs within their boundaries.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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