Making Waves — North Carolina

April 29, 2024

Climate problems may seem overwhelming, but people all around this great nation are taking action. This week we’re looking at NORTH CAROLINA and the question is: Why is it critical to create safe wildlife crossings along our nation’s roads?

No need to enlighten this readership about animal mortality (aka roadkill) along our highways. We can certainly see it all around us, as Pennsylvania had the highest number of animal collisions of any state according to a May 2022 report, in which State Farm insurance estimated that from July 2020 – June 2021, there were 2.1 million crashes nationally (over 160,000 were in PA). These collisions have a huge economic cost but the impact is typically assessed only on the human/vehicular side.

Recently, with all the stressors we humans are placing on the natural environment, the real cost of these encounters for non-human creatures is reaching a critical level. It’s not just about making our roads safer or saving animals’ lives, it’s also about habitat connectivity. Over-built environments and fractured ecosystems work against biodiversity. This applies similarly to vast swaths of lands along migratory routes, for species on the go. When animals can’t move freely, problems multiply in hunting and finding food. Increased inbreeding is another effect when populations are constricted by human infrastructure.

Climate change enters the picture due to increased migration among normally more stable wildlife populations: animals are moving with changing landscapes. In oceans, cold-loving crustaceans like lobster are moving north as water temps increase. In woodlands, animals are moving northward or to higher elevations to forage, as the phenology of plants (their leaf, flower, and/or fruiting schedules) are affected by rising temps, floods, and drought.

Back to North Carolina: wildlife specialists from The Wildlands Network have been studying how animals are responding to and using different types of road crossings. It helps them evaluate different methods (e.g. strategic fencing) to encourage wildlife to use designated overpasses and enlarged culverts. In North Carolina, they’ve focused on a section of Interstate 40, a major East-West transportation route that runs from NC to California. It bisects important forest lands in the southern Appalachian Mountains, near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, at the Tennessee / N. Carolina border. Wildlands Network partnered with the National Parks Conservation Association to create with a focus on the Pigeon River Gorge area. The coalition learned that the NC State Dept. of Transportation planned to replace a handful of bridges and overpasses in this popular and scenic stretch of the interstate. Together they all worked on redesigning crossings, to further encourage safe animal passage as well as facilitate vehicular flow.

If you have internet access, check this interesting program which tells all about it.
Podcast: Rewilding Earth (Sept 15, 2022)
Episode 95: Liz Hillard on Wildlife Connectivity in the Pigeon River Gorge [~36 mins]

Newsflash: the bipartisan Infrastructure Bill includes $350 million in funds earmarked for the creation of safe crossings for wildlife. Applications are accepted starting in 2023.

Bonus viral video: 60 seconds from a California game cam shows a coyote and a badger helping each other cross under a road. They don’t just hunt cooperatively… the coyote is clearly a happy crossing guard helper! Search “coyote badger culvert” to find it yourself. Delightful!

Let me know if you have a podcast to recommend, have a comment about my column, or have trouble finding a particular podcast I’ve mentioned. Happy listening!
[email protected]

Note: This column, part of a series looking at examples of positive climate action, state-by-state, first appeared in the Forest County News Journal 01-25-2023. If you are interested in this state’s topic, check online for updated news, as a lot may have changed in a year and a quarter.

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