The stage is set for wildlife upgrades on I-40

If you’ve recently traveled Interstate 40 between Asheville and Knoxville, you know there’s construction not far from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boundary. But what exactly is going on?

First, for some time the North Carolina Department of Transportation has been preparing to replace five bridges in the Pigeon River Gorge over a period of approximately five years. At the same time as it was expected, a group of regional organizations began discussing what could be done about the growing wildlife mortality – up to 77 dead bears in 2021 alone – along a stretch 28 miles of road which includes bridges scheduled for replacement.

This group became known as Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project, and the North Carolina and Tennessee Departments of Transportation became active members of the collaboration.

► Protect wildlife:Wildlife crossing under I-40 in Pigeon River Gorge, “great start” for bear and elk safety

Word from the Smokies: Travis Wilson helps provide safe passage for wildlife in North Carolina

Jeff Hunter talks about road ecology - how roads affect both nearby plants and animals - under the Bluffton Bridge on Interstate 40 near Hartford, Tennessee.

An intensive three-year study in the gorge by the National Parks 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 to many animal species tried to cross as well as where they were killed in collisions with vehicles. This research showed that these scheduled bridge replacements provided excellent opportunities to incorporate certain improvements to help wildlife cross the highway using structures that have proven effective in reducing wildlife mortality in other parts. of the United States and around the world.

“The new bridge over Cold Spring Creek was opened by the contractor ahead of schedule in mid-May,” said Jeffrey Hunter, facilitator for Safe Passage and senior program manager for NPCA. “NCDOT has advised me that there will be ramp closures due to ongoing drainage work at Harmon Den, but now that the bridge is reopened, wildlife enhancement work can begin.”

Jeff Hunter explained details of the ongoing construction work at the Harmon Den exit on Interstate 40 to students at several universities in late March.

Hunter says these upgrades to the Harmon Den outlet will include benches to create paths parallel to and on both sides of Cold Springs Creek that will allow animals to navigate under the bridge. This is especially important for larger species such as elk and deer, as previously large riprap impeded their passage. Wildlife fences up to 10 feet high will be used to guide animals to safe passage in conjunction with jumps, one-way openings in a wildlife fence that allow animals to exit the highway. Cattle guards will also be employed to prevent ungulates (elk and deer) from walking on the entrance and exit ramps.

Word from the Smokies: Keys to Successful Wildlife Crossing on I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge

Word from the Smokies: TEDx Asheville speaker defends the Safe Passage project for wildlife

The Safe Passage Fund Coalition recommends replacing small culverts like this one designed to move water under I-40 with larger ones that can allow passage of bear, elk and deer, the focal species of an intensive three-year study in the Pigeon Gorges of the river.

“Our number one priority recommendation is to replace the culverts under the westbound I-40 entrance ramp and the eastbound exit ramp,” Hunter said. “The culverts are currently too small to accommodate elk and replacing them with larger culverts will allow all wildlife to avoid crossing the level on-ramps and exits.”

To enable people to contribute financially to future wildlife crossing works, seven of Safe Passage’s partner organizations have formed the Safe Passage Fund Coalition. But federal and state funding is also needed to support state DOTs.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper met with Safe Passage supporters June 2 at the Western Office of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources in Asheville.  From left to right: Hugh Irwin of the Wilderness Society;  Bill Holman of the Conservation Fund;  Brad Stanback of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission;  Christine Laporte of Wildlands Network;  Tanya Prater of faculty at FernLeaf Community Charter School;  Ben Prater of Wildlife Defenders;  Nikki Robinson of the Wildlands Network;  FernLeaf Community Charter School faculty Alexis Hinchliffe;  FernLeaf Community Charter School students Joy Mast, Elsa Rule and Cailee Montague;  Governor Roy Cooper;  Hanni Muerdter of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy;  Liz Hillard of the Wildlands Network;  Jeff Hunter of the National Parks Conservation Association;  Secretary Reid Wilson of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources;  aurora

On June 2, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper met with Safe Passage Fund Coalition partners and other labor supporters at a roundtable discussion on the importance of wildlife crossings in the state. . Hunter started the meeting by introducing the coalition and its mission, then turned the spotlight to the group’s scientists and researchers, who explained how the data collected can be used to inform decisions about future wildlife crossing locations. .

FernLeaf Charter School students Joy Mast, Elsa Rule and Cailee Montague present wildlife advocacy letters to North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper during a meeting June 2 in Asheville.

Three students from FernLeaf Community Charter School in Fletcher presented letters written during a learning module on road ecology – how plants and animals are affected by roads. Their classes, 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 is working to make I-40 safer and reading the book of the chapter “A Search for Safe Passage” (Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2021).

The group noted that North Carolina could become a leader in wildlife crossing work in the eastern United States, raising the state’s profile nationally by improving traveler safety through science-based crossing structures. The governor expressed his approval.

North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commissioner Brad Stanback speaks with North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper about Safe Passage: The River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project Pigeon I-40 during a June 2 meeting in Asheville.

“It’s wonderful 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 resolve this seemingly intractable problem.”

Word from the Smokies: Book teaches young people about the need for wildlife crossings

Word from the Smokies: Asheville’s Fates performs on video to benefit the Safe Passage Project

Jeff Hunter will speak at 1 p.m. on Friday, June 17, 2022, as part of the Science at Sugarlands series hosted by Discover Life in America, a nonprofit partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Sign up at dlia.org/sas to receive a Zoom link.

While Hunter says the issues with dead bears on I-40 remain – “We’ve had three dead bears in the last 10 days!” — he notes that there are many other wildlife mortality hotspots in the state.

“The cultural change within NCDOT is the big story,” he said. “The agency plans to standardize wildlife conflict resolution in its statewide projects, much as it would address wetlands or other design issues when building roads.”

But Hunter pointed out that both state transportation departments still need committed resources to conduct feasibility studies related to the research-driven recommendations. He said our region needs federal support for transportation infrastructure so that wildlife crossings are not an anomaly but the norm.

Frances Figart

The full Pigeon River Gorge research report will be released within the next two to three months. In the meantime, those interested can learn more about a free virtual talk Hunter will give at 1 p.m. on Friday, June 17, as part of the Science at Sugarlands series hosted by Discover Life in America, a nonprofit partner of the park. Great Smoky Mountains National. . Register on dlia.org/sas to receive a Zoom link.

Learn more about Safe Passage at SmokiesSafePassage.org. Find the book “A Search for Safe Passage” on SmokiesInformation.org.

Frances Figart is editor-in-chief of the bi-annual journal “Smokies Life” and director of creative services for the 29,000-member Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit educational partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Contact her at [email protected] and learn more about SmokiesInformation.org.

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