The Mountain Times

°F Thu, April 17, 2014

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VTrans, Fish & Wildlife partner to improve wildlife crossings

When wildlife ventures onto roads and highways, the results can be devastating for people and animals. In addition to creating roadkill, highways act as barriers that can halt animal migration, isolating wildlife and promoting inbreeding among disconnected populations.

The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and VTrans are undergoing a two-year study to learn how to mitigate the effects of highways on wildlife populations and improve highway safety. The study area extends from Waterbury to Bolton Village, where researchers say wildlife populations are divided by I-89, US Route 2, a railroad line, local roads, and the Winooski River.

The VTrans wildlife transportation committee has been working to improve wildlife migration corridors along roads for nearly a decade. Tropical Storm Irene and other recent flooding events have demonstrated the need for larger road culverts to improve flood resiliency. Jens Hawkins-Hilke, conservation planning biologist for the Fish & Wildlife Department, sees these larger culverts as an opportunity to give wildlife the chance to cross roads without incident.

Hawkins-Hilke works with communities to improve migration corridors for wildlife. He cited this particular stretch of highway as a major roadblock for animal, particularly larger species such as bear, deer and moose.

"A bear looking to move from the Mt. Mansfield area to Camel's Hump in search of food or a mate is going to encounter a number of obstacles along the way," said Hawkins-Hilke. "When they arrive at the highway, there is low concrete barrier blocking their way. Assuming they find their way around that, they still have to cross the interstate, Route 2, several town roads, and the railroad, any of which could end fatally for them and create a dangerous situation for drivers."

Vermont's bear population is higher than it has ever been right now, resulting in an increase of crashes involving bears. And in 2012 Vermont motorists were involved in 98 collisions with moose, which frequently total vehicles and can be fatal to the driver.

The study will deploy game cameras to measure the abundance of wildlife species and to determine areas along the road with a high incidence of wildlife crossing.  Researchers hope to use this information to assess the current level of use of existing wildlife crossing structures and to prioritize locations for similar structures in the future.