Problem Identified, Solutions Lacking, Critics Say
BY LISA BARIL
Residents living between Yellowstone National Park and Living-ston along U.S. Highway 89 know that to avoid a wildlife collision it’s best to drive well below the posted 70 mph speed limit, especially after dark. It also helps to have a friend in the passenger seat looking for deer and elk just off, or sometimes in, the roadway. At night, some even follow in the wake of drivers ahead —safety in numbers.
Even if you take precautions not all wildlife collisions can be avoided. According to the Montana Depart-ment of Transportation’s recently released Paradise Valley Corridor Planning Study, half of the 286 crashes occurring between July 1, 2007, and June 30, 2012, along Highway 89 from mile marker 0.0 at the Yellowstone National Park boundary to mile marker 52.5 south of Livingston involved wildlife. Deer accounted for 84 percent of animals killed, followed by elk at 11 percent.
Wildlife-vehicle collisions cost Americans more than $8 billion annually between vehicle repair costs, medical bills, towing fees, and other expenses, according to Montanans for Safe Wildlife Passage, a Bozeman-based non-profit promoting wildlife and habitat connectivity in Montana. Reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions would save taxpayers and individuals considerable money as well as reduce injuries or deaths related to these collisions.
The Paradise Valley Corridor Planning Study was conducted in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration with coordin-ation from Park County, and included input from stakeholders and private citizens. The final study was published April 28, 2014.
“A corridor planning study is a good tool for engaging stakeholders, partners, and the public,” MDT’s Environmental Services Bureau Chief, Tom Martin, told the Pioneer. “It’s an initial look at a project area to help identify issues specific to that roadway.”
Although the study identified the potential for wildlife collisions as the number one safety issue, critics argue that the authors failed to make specific recommendations for reducing wildlife collisions, as it did with issues related to traffic flow.
“The study included line items for things like widening shoulders and installing turn lanes and passing lanes—many of which are very expensive—but when it came to wildlife collisions MDT failed to adequately address the issue,” Bart Melton, Yellowstone Program Manager for National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), told the Pioneer. (NPCA is an independent advocacy group for the National Park Service.) “All we’re asking for is a study that would cost between $50,000 to $100,000 to work on figuring out ways to reduce wildlife collisions…a drop in the bucket for the MDT budget.”
Dan Wenk, Yellowstone Nation-al Park superintendent, stated in comments provided to MDT that some of the recommendations outlined in the study, like installing turn lanes and passing lanes, may have the unintended consequence of creating more wildlife collisions because traffic will move faster.
NPCA argues that wildlife collisions may be grossly under-reported and that measures to improve traffic flow may worsen the problem. Seven hundred large mammal carcasses reported to the MDT during 2007-2012 were not accompanied by an accident report and so were not categorized as animals hit by vehicles, but many, NPCA argues, were likely the result of collisions.
Martin argues that those who are critical of the study misunder-stand its purpose. “The corridor study was a planning level study meant to identify the issues and concerns of the stakeholders and public. It is not a design or construction project. We are all on the same team for improving safety and reducing wildlife collisions on Highway 89. Where we differ is in the details…,” said Martin.
But NPCA argues that MDT has not outlined any next steps. “The MDT needs to clarify…how they will move forward. So far they haven’t done that,” said Melton.
As summer approaches, traffic on Highway 89 will begin to increase. In 2012, 2,500 to 3,500 vehicles per day travelled Highway 89 June through August, according to the study. Most vehicles during the summer months are new visitors who may be unaware of the wildlife safety issues along this stretch of highway. The study also points out that Paradise Valley is one of the most wildlife-rich areas in Montana, and consequently has a crash rate higher than the state average. The NPCA says they will continue to advocate on this issue and hopes MDT will move forward with a study to further investigate ways to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions through the Paradise Valley.