Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Safe passages October 13, 2014 story by Sepp Jannotta • Published 10/13/14

As the whine of a tractor-trailer faded northward along U.S. Highway 93 and a not-so-late-model sedan zipped past in the other direction, Marcel Huijser and Whisper Camel-Means paused in the shadows of the corrugated underpass, crouching to examine bear sign in the creek bed. Possibly, it was a grizzly.

The pair of Montana State University-affiliated researchers’ search for tracks at the Post Creek underpass is textbook road ecology—the study of how ecosystems are affected by the presence of roads, or, in this case, the study of animals’ response to the presence of ways to bypass the road. Two fundamental truths drive the work: Wildlife-vehicle collisions cost billions of dollars each year in the U.S. alone, both in bodily harm to vehicle occupants and in damage to property; and roads are one of the most critical and pervasive threats to wildlife, through direct mortality and the fragmenting of habitat.

The possibility of a grizzly bear walking here is a good sign. Camel-Means and Huijser have been studying the movements of wild animals in this section of the Flathead Indian Reservation since 2002, before work began on the Highway 93 expansion that included installing crossing structures. Both Huijser and Camel-Means said they are hopeful the tracks point to a bear that has learned to use the underpass rather than run across the roadway. If the bear is a sow, they hope she will teach her offspring. Just a short way up the road, several grizzly bears have been hit and killed in years prior. 

“I love it when we find bear tracks down here,” said Camel-Means, who received a master’s degree in ecology at MSU. “That is a sign that we are making progress, both in keeping drivers safe, as well as in preserving the ecological heritage of this area.”

Animal tracks in the reservation’s underpasses and overpass are part of an encouraging pattern. Beginning in 2010, when the road reconstruction project was mostly finished, the number of individual crossings has increased each year. Over the same period, vehicle-wildlife collisions fell by 40–60 percent in the mitigated road sections.

“It’s a win-win policy,” Huijser said. “We have about 20,000 animals crossing (U.S. 93) each year via the crossing structures we monitor, and we’ve reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions. And in the process we might be saving the life of a grizzly sow who is dispersing to a new habitat, where she may mate and rear cubs. That connectivity can make the difference when it comes to protecting an endangered species like the grizzly.”

20 years of WTI

Huijser and Camel-Means are part of a multi-organization team collaborating on the implementation and study of a system of wildlife-crossing structures over a 56-mile stretch of the highway on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Intended to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and mitigate the highway’s impact on wildlife movements, the Montana Department of Transportation installed high fencing to exclude animals from some of the most problematic collision areas and 40 underpasses and one overpass to provide safe passage for vehicles and animals. Huijser is a road ecologist with the MSU Western Transportation Institute and Camel-Means, a graduate of MSU, is a wildlife biologist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

This year, as Huijser begins to wrap up WTI’s study on the Flathead Indian Reservation and fellow WTI road ecologist Tony Clevenger comes to the end of a 17-year study of a similar highway mitigation project in Canada’s Banff National Park, WTI marks 20 years of working to make rural roads safer.

Steve Albert, WTI’s director, said the story of WTI showcases the best of what land-grant universities can do.

“WTI’s work is specifically about employing the science and engineering expertise found at Montana State University and among our partners to promote the safety of drivers who travel rural, two-lane roads,” Albert said. “And let’s face it, that’s just about all of us who drive here in Montana.”

In its pursuit of that mission, WTI has provided experiential learning opportunities in those years to more than 650 undergraduate and graduate students through internships, fellowships and grant-funded research. From an original roster of two people, WTI has grown over the past 20 years to include 70 researchers, affiliated faculty, student interns and staff, with an annual budget close to $10 million.

Albert came to MSU in 1994 to launch WTI, which the U.S. Department of Transportation has designated as a National University Transportation Center. Since that time, WTI has accounted for a total of more than $90 million in research expenditures, according to Albert. As a cooperative research institute combining the MSU College of Engineering, the Montana Department of Transportation and California’s CalTrans department, the projects WTI pursues have focused on sites across Montana, as well as in 39 states and 14 countries. WTI is the largest institute in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National University Transportation Center program in the area of rural transportation research.

The research runs the gamut. WTI teams have: experimented with ways to engineer more durable asphalt; studied the eye movements and reaction abilities of teen drivers; collected data on how to prevent texting while driving; designed signage for safer construction zones; worked to improve water quality and fish passage; experimented with ways to ensure road cuts produce fewer falling rocks; and helped with the feasibility studies for Bozeman’s Streamline bus system.

WTI’s road ecology group, which includes nine staff members, has spearheaded the studies in Banff and the Flathead Indian Reservation. The group has received international recognition for its work in helping transportation agencies design, plan, develop and evaluate effective wildlife-vehicle collision mitigation systems.

In addition to helping highway engineers maximize the effectiveness of highway mitigation projects, the group has deployed and investigated a system of solar-powered wildlife sensors to alert motorists in and around Yellowstone National Park of crossing animals.

Teams from across the globe have toured the Flathead area and Banff National Park mitigation sites with Huijser and Clevenger and WTI’s partners. In turn, members of the WTI Road Ecology Program have visited and consulted on proposed mitigation sites in countries on four continents.

Long road to collaboration

In May, WTI’s road ecology group hosted a meeting of the national association known as ARC—shorthand for Animal Road Crossings—bringing together wildlife biologists, transportation engineers and others from academic circles, nongovernmental organizations and state and federal agencies. They spent the better part of a week working on a white paper that will describe best practices for nearly every step of the process in mitigating highways and allowing safe passage for wildlife and fish.

“This ARC paper will essentially be a call for more innovation and the new directions needed for more progress in road ecology and highway mitigation,” said Rob Ament, manager of WTI’s Road Ecology Program. “And looking around the room during the meeting, (we saw) how this field has really become strengthened by the collaborative nature that comes when you merge highway engineering with wildlife biology, the safety of motorists with ecological connectivity on the landscape level."

Clevenger agreed.

“It’s been a long and evolving process. Twenty years ago, there weren’t that many people interested in (road ecology),” Clevenger said. “Back then you couldn’t get biologists to sit in the same room with engineers. Department of Transportation people didn’t want to talk to people at Fish and Game.”

That has changed because of the work that WTI and others have done in partnering with agencies in both camps to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and habitat fragmentation. WTI has produced some groundbreaking research studying mitigation projects like the one in Banff, which, with 44 crossings, is the most extensive system in the world.

This spring, Clevenger, MSU ecology professor Steven Kalinowski and then-MSU doctoral student Michael Sawaya published findings from a first-of-its-kind study of Banff National Park bears, showing that the crossing structures there are helping to maintain genetically healthy populations of bears spanning the Trans-Canada Highway. The findings of the MSU study, which collected some 10,000 hair samples from black bears and grizzlies, were published in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the Royal Society’s flagship biological research journal. In short, Clevenger and his team were able to use genetic testing of the hair samples to show that bears were using the crossings to find mates.

Meanwhile, a 2009 paper with Huijser as the lead author delved into the cost-benefit of preventing collisions with large mammals, particularly ungulates such as deer, elk and moose. Factoring the cost associated with vehicle damage repair, human injuries, human fatalities, towing of wrecks, removing carcasses and estimating value of the animal for hunting, the paper put an average dollar amount on different types of wrecks—deer collisions average $6,617, elk collisions cost $17,483 and hitting a moose carries an average cost of $30,760.

“We definitely found there are quite a few roads, particularly in the western parts of Canada and the U.S., where the benefits of mitigation outweigh the costs,” Huijser said. “In addition to benefiting society by improving road safety and preventing costly accidents, there is the added benefit of providing ecological connectivity between habitat on both sides of the roadways.”

Clevenger said the total amount of published work on road ecology coming out of WTI has made it easier for the engineers and transportation managers to justify incorporating mitigation plans into their road expansion plans projects.

“It’s really amazing to see what’s happened in 20 years,” Clevenger said. “Hopefully these examples breed more interest and get people thinking ‘Why can’t we do this in Idaho, or Georgia?’”

The outreach efforts involving both the Banff and Flathead mitigation projects are a starting point for educating the public, as well as for policy makers. In 2013, the Western Governors’ Association contracted WTI to conduct research, jointly with the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, outlining the best options for the “development of a sustainable strategy supporting transportation planning and conservation priorities across the West.”

Worth a thousand words

Standing beside the set of relatively fresh bear tracks, Huijser and Camel-Means said their best outreach tool has turned out to be the photos that are automatically taken when an animal crosses U.S. Highway 93 via a structure the scientists monitor.

Camera traps and sand tracking beds placed near many of the project’s 40 underpasses and one overpass have helped Huijser, Camel-Means and their collaborators gather data to build a picture of the valley’s wildlife and their use of crossings.

The traps have resulted in thousands of images—photographs of all manner of western Montana wildlife crossing below and above the highway in all kinds of weather, day and night. (Some of the animal images are available at www.montana.edu/mountainsandminds.)

Camel-Means said a photo of two mountain lions traveling together under Highway 93 put the mitigation project on the national radar.

“We’d been keeping the photos pretty well under wraps because at the time they were really a part of unfinished research,” said Camel-Means, who returned home after completing her master’s at MSU so she could continue working on the road ecology project as a representative of her tribe. “But this one photo got out there…and from there it kind of went viral.”

Within a day or so, Camel-Means said the team was fielding requests from national news outlets to showcase the photos. Many of the images were captured at night, giving them an eerily candid look, showing the movements of grizzly bears, black bears, deer, elk, moose, mountain lions, bobcats, beavers, river otters, coyotes, fox and a number of bird species.

While the images are useful in public relations, the data represented by photos and tracks underscore a number of very practical successes for the mitigation project, Huijser said.

Looking out at a valley that holds a mix of public and private land and includes agriculture, light industry, a reservation community of small towns and a steady flow of local and tourist traffic, Huijser acknowledges some challenges. For starters, unlike in Banff, it’s not an option to fence off the entire stretch of highway. There are too many side roads and private driveways.

But in those challenges lies the project’s strength, Huijser said.

“Most of rural America looks like this, with a mixed landscape,” he said. “And if we can show that mitigation is working here, both saving lives and promoting ecological connectivity, that’s great. And if somebody sees this and decides that it can be done in another place, and they too begin saving lives and promoting connectivity, then we are really doing something special.” ■