In Montana alone, five people were killed and 123 injured in 2005 out of 1,866 wildlife-vehicle collisions, according to the Montana Highway Patrol. Nationally, the federal government estimates roughly 200 people are killed and more than 15,000 injured annually from collisions with wildlife and domestic animals.
WTI's study will be the first of its kind to be presented to Congress, according to Pat McGowen, a WTI research engineer and one of the study's leaders.
The study will include a manual to help transportation planners across the nation reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions.
"It's a huge issue," McGowen said. "There are various strategies that have been tried in different states and around the globe; it's our intent to analyze and distill this information to make it easy for transportation practitioners to use."
The WTI team will gather the available data on North American wildlife-vehicle collisions, add their own research, and incorporate a wealth of knowledge from Europe and Australia.
"We have strong European links that will give us access to reports that are not available to researchers who only speak English," said Marcel Huijser, who will lead the study with McGowen. Huijser is Dutch and a research wildlife ecologist at WTI.
McGowen and Huijser will look at studies that increased safety -- such as fencing to keep animals off roads -- and that maintained or improved habitat connectivity using under- and overpasses that allow wildlife to cross roads safely.
"There are several new areas as well," Huijser said. "There are new technologies for animal detection systems; there is a strong interest in cost-benefit analysis of different mitigation measures and there is also an interest in understanding a new road as part of a larger network, not as just an isolated project."
Systems that detect animals on roads and then alert drivers with a signal have not been extensively studied.
"There is only one published study on this, from Switzerland," Huijser said. "It reported a reduction in collisions of 82 percent. That is very encouraging, but much needs to be learned as to how that would relate to signage, a different driving culture and different animal species."
There are subtleties: For example, what kind of sign is most effective in making a driver reduce speed or become more alert, Huijser said.
Cost-benefit analysis is another relatively new area. Creating wildlife over- and underpasses can be expensive, but do they deliver the best results for the dollar?
Huijser, McGowen and the WTI are uniquely positioned to find out. The team has collected baseline data on animal crossings and animal-vehicle collisions along the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park in Canada for ten years and along Highway 93 from Polson to Evaro, north of Missoula, for the past three years.
Under a joint federal, state and tribal project, the section of Highway 93 passing through the Flathead Indian Reservation will have more than 40 wildlife crossing structures. Much of the work on the highway is being done this year.
"The concentration of crossing structures surpasses anything in Europe and Australia," Huijser said. "Even Banff National Park in Canada and Alligator Alley along Interstate 75 in southern Florida have fewer crossing structures."
WTI's baseline data will help determine how well the structures work. There has never been a similar baseline study done anywhere in the world, Huijser said.
Huijser and McGowen have 18 months to finish the Federal Highway Administration report. They envision a heavily illustrated document that will assist transportation planning across the United States.
"It is important to get examples of solutions out there," Huijser said. "If people don't know what is possible, they may give up too easily."
Contact: Rob Ament, research coordinator, Western Transportation Institute, (406) 994-6423 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Marcel Huijser, research wildlife ecologist, WTI, (406) 543-2377 or email@example.com; Pat McGowen, research engineer, firstname.lastname@example.org.