The following piece was first published in Planet Jackson Hole as a guest opinion by Alliance Executive Director Craig Benjamin.
Wildlife deserves a better chance for survival in Jackson Hole.
It’s a parent’s worst nightmare: losing your child in a car crash. Unfortunately, one local mother has dealt with it twice.
On Sunday, June 19, a person driving a car through Grand Teton National Park struck a grizzly bear cub near Pilgrim Creek. The impact crushed the cub’s skull and killed it instantly. The driver didn’t even bother to stop and report the collision. The cub, known as “Snowy,” was the lone cub of this year and the eleventh offspring of world-famous and beloved grizzly 399. This was the second time grizzly 399 lost one of her cubs to a car crash; it also happened in 2012.
Let’s be clear, there are all sorts of challenges facing grizzlies these days. From conflicts with people to debates over the status of the population size, the future of grizzly food sources, and the appropriate role of research; to the potential for the delisting of grizzlies from the Endangered Species Act resulting in state management and the possible hunting of bears; to how wildlife management agencies handle “problem” bears, the challenges are numerous.
Here’s the thing: wildlife-vehicle collisions are a threat to grizzlies and many other animals in our ecosystem.
Snowy, and the mature sow black bear also killed by a car on the same day near Deadman’s Bar, made for a total of 37 animals hit in the park this year by that date. In the few short weeks since these tragic incidents, that number has risen to 50. On average, more than 100 large animals are struck every year on park roads. Last year, people driving vehicles on Teton County roads struck at least 377 animals.
Yes, you read that right; on average there was more than one wildlife-vehicle collision every day in Teton County last year.
That number probably doesn’t come as a surprise, as nearly every one of us has seen wildlife killed after trying to cross the road, most of us know someone who has been in a wildlife-vehicle collision, and too many of us have experienced the trauma of being in one, too.
But this is about more than the large number of animals killed on our roads every year, and the threat wildlife-vehicle collisions pose to our families. It’s also about how our roads cut off key migration corridors and fragment critical wildlife habitat. This is an enormous problem because as our climate continues to change, animals will need to move around more than ever and if they can’t get where they need to go, they’ll be in serious trouble.
Fortunately, we know how to effectively reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions by ninety percent. All it takes is mashing up a collaborative approach with decisions based on facts and data.
In Banff Canada, on Highway 93 in northern Montana, and just south of here at Trapper’s Point near Pinedale, wildlife crossings – bridges and tunnels combined with fencing to funnel animals to the crossings – have reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions by nearly ninety percent. Each of these projects required inter-jurisdictional collaboration between many government agencies and both pre- and post-construction data collection to ensure they are in fact working to make it safe for wildlife to cross the road.
While wildlife crossings have proven to be the most effective measure to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions across America and around the world, they may not be appropriate for every location. Take Hwy 390 from Hwy 22 to Teton Village, where vehicles from 2010-2015 struck at least 36 moose and numerous driveways make wildlife crossings challenging to implement.
The West Bank community mobilized and collaborated with the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT), the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, and Teton County on a number of safety improvements on Hwy 390 including reduced speed limits, radar speed warning signs, and trimming of vegetation along the road to improve sightlines. While it’s still too early to say for certain, it appears these improvements have reduced the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions along this stretch of road.
Then there’s the S. Hwy 89 expansion project from Jackson to Hoback, where WYDOT is installing six underpasses for larger animals, several culverts for smaller animals, and even some fish passage crossings, as well as fences to help funnel wildlife away from the highway and toward the crossing structures. To identify the best locations for these crossings, WYDOT analyzed all sorts of data showing known hot spots for wildlife-vehicle collisions and migration corridors.
In addition, a group of nonprofits including the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative are collaborating on a pre-construction monitoring effort for the S. Hwy 89 project which involves remote cameras snapping pictures of wildlife at key crossing sites. The data and images from this monitoring effort will further inform design considerations for all wildlife crossing structures.
Circling back to Grand Teton National Park, we should applaud what they’ve done to date and their renewed commitment to reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions. Over the past decade the park has collaborated with other federal agencies and private partners on traffic calming efforts, reduced nighttime speed limits, placed message boards, and increased their education and awareness efforts. Moving forward the park is working with the Teton Conservation District to analyze their wildlife-vehicle collision data in order to develop even more effective long-term strategies to keep wildlife and our families safe on park roads.
Now, Teton County is moving forward with a wildlife crossings master plan to provide an objective, systematic, data-driven blueprint for reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions in Jackson Hole. This plan will take all of the existing facts, data, studies, and analysis, fill in any important gaps, and recommend location-specific approaches for making it safe for wildlife to cross our roads at prioritized locations. Since every location is different and context matters, it’s critical to have collaboration from our local government agencies, wildlife experts, and people like you in developing this plan.
So please join hundreds of your friends and neighbors over the next year in supporting the development of our wildlife crossings master plan in order to help the county develop the best plan possible for reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions and improving habitat connectivity. While it’s too late for Snowy, it’s not too late for our community to do the right thing. Visitwww.facebook.com/wildlifecrossingsjh to stay in the loop.