SPET by SPET: Wildlife crossings vote will reveal a lot about our values

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — Wildlife crossings almost didn’t make the list when town and county officials were vetting SPET for 2019. It was one of the more haggled-over initiatives and, originally, was slated for far less money than the $10M it is at now.

How is it a community that repeatedly states its highest priority is stewarding and protecting our vast natural resources like habitat and wildlife finds it so painstaking to actually make our wallets sing the same song?

So, in many ways, Prop 10 is emblematic of this valley’s collective will. The dollars collected via the tax will go toward making a difference, but the statement made by a ‘yes’ vote will go further. ‘Yes’ means we do care about our wildlife and we choose to do something about killing these animals on our roadways.

“I’ve been involved in public process for a long time. We have said we value wildlife for a long time. This is a very basic way to back it up,” says former county commissioner and chair of the Wildlife Crossings PAC, Barbara Allen.

The need for speed

The data is available in various places. We are hitting and killing more of our treasured wildlife every year. We’ve become almost number to the numbers.

About 500 animals are killed by vehicles annually in Teton County. The harsher the winter, the more we mow down. During winter 2016-17, collisions were recorded between vehicles and mule deer (269), elk (48), and moose (18)—not to mention coyotes, wolves, bears, foxes, owls, porcupine, and a host of other wild animals.

And wildlife-vehicle collisions with large mammals also pose a substantial human safety issue with substantial economic impacts. An estimated cost analysis for winter 2016-17 alone was put at $3,172,837.

There are simply more of us in the county than ever before, putting more miles on the road than ever before.

This photo by Wyoming Department of Transportation is from a camera that was mounted inside an underpass on US 30 in Nugget Canyon, Wyoming, after construction was completed on six new underpasses and several miles of game-proof fencing. WYDOT monitored the effectiveness of these crossing structures for three years and documented more than 49,000 mule deer crossings during that study. Courtesy WYDOT

What can be done?

Measures can and have been taken. Signage, educational outreach, reduced speed limits have all been marginally effective, according to a comprehensive Wildlife Crossings Master Plan released recently.

“Standard wildlife warning signs (black on yellow) and enhanced wildlife warning signs (symbols, flags, permanently flashing amber lights, variable message signs) are not effective in reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions,” reads research conducted in compiling the report for Teton County.

Lowering speed limits at night, for instance, was found to have some effect but still, “[E]ven with a vehicle speed of about 45 mph, the limited range of most vehicle’s headlights only allows about half the drivers to stop in time for a large animal in the dark,” according to researchers.

Wildlife crossings—whether underpass or overpass—when placed in known hotspots, have been demonstrated effective in mitigating wildlife-vehicle conflict. Dramatically.

Researchers found, “Wildlife fences in combination with wildlife crossing structures (underpasses and overpasses) are the most robust mitigation measures that can reduce collisions with large wild mammals by 80-100%, and that allow wildlife to cross the highway safely.”

“While it’s helpful to slow down and pay attention to wildlife, it’s simply not enough,” stated the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, who has been spearheading a campaign to include wildlife crossings on a SPET ballot for some time. “Combined with fencing along the roads to funnel animals to the crossings, wildlife crossings have proven themselves as the most effective way to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions. In Wyoming, Montana, and Canada, wildlife crossings have reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions by nearly 90%.”

Recent successes include two overpasses near Daniel, Wyo., where migrating mule deer, pronghorn and elk took almost immediately to using the structures, astounding even the staunchest proponents who thought it would take longer for it to become learned habit. A wildlife crossing was also installed in the new Jackson South project on S. Highway 89.

And the state, too, is sold on the effectiveness of wildlife crossings. Earlier this year, Wyoming Game and Fish Commission committed over a million dollars to work on wildlife crossings, hoping to reduce the more than 6,000 wildlife collisions that are recorded each year in the state.

Governor Mark Gordon has pulled together a citizen’s group to dig deeper into big game migration corridors in an effort to learn where wildlife go and when. Legislators have recognized some $250M needed over the next five years for dozens of wildlife crossings at key migration chokepoints identified throughout the state, but actual funding remains to be seen.

So, the groundswell is on and no county is better situated than Teton to lead the charge. Protecting wildlife populations is a central community value, as reflected in the Teton County Comprehensive Plan. If not us, who? If not here, where?

 

How many crossings does $10M get us?

The aforementioned master plan identifies 11 hotspots in the county and ranks them according to priority. Topping the list, as might be easily imagined, is Highway 22, especially near its intersection with Highway 390 (Teton Village Road).

“This SPET money is not specifically targeted to 22-390,” Allen explains. “It just happens that WYDOT is doing a redesign and construction project there so they have committed to installing two crossings. Part of this SPET money could help build two more that have been identified as priority.”

Chris Colligan is the wildlife program coordinator with Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He is also on the advisory committee with WYDOT for reconstruction in the county. He says a wildlife working group has put a lot of thought toward how and where the two wildlife underpasses could work on WYO 390.

Fencing will be the toughest issue, Colligan says. Unlike highway stretches in the middle of nowhere where up to three miles of fencing is recommended in order to funnel wildlife into crossings, the more urban-stylings of Teton Village Road will make that much fencing impossible.

“We’ve talked a lot about the ends of fencing and what could be done there. Because where your fence ends is the next animal crossing,” Colligan says. “A wildlife detection system with warning lights makes a lot of sense, for instance.”

But would wildlife crossings make sense on 390 where it is mainly moose meandering around for a bite of willows and not migrating elk headed somewhere specific?

Colligan thinks so.

“We have some early results from moose collaring showing how many times they move across the road and I have to say they are pretty resilient animals given the traffic volumes on Highway 22 alone which peak at 18,000 vehicles a day. This is important winter range for moose and the volume of traffic becomes a barrier.”

Wildlife crossings can also include culverts that connect fragmented fish and wildlife habitat.

Elk have had trouble crossing Highway 191 in the Hoback Canyon. WYDOT

More than money

More than what $10M can build is what kind of statement it makes.

“The benefit of having money in the bank is having money in the bank,” Allen states simply. “The state as a whole is recognizing wildlife crossings are important. Ten million buys you a seat at the table with WYDOT or whoever, and sends a message to anyone listening that Teton County cares about its wildlife.”

And it isn’t just WYDOT projects that SPET money could be used for. Plenty of one-off opportunities exist to do something on highways not specifically targeted by the state for reconstruction.

“Bar Y is a good example, or down by Camp Creek,” Colligan says.

Considering the money spent on auto body repair, hospital bills, or worse, an investment in wildlife crossings make convincing fiscal sense. Built to last some 75 years, a cost-benefit analysis quickly paints a clear picture.

November 5 will reveal a lot about where county residents put their values. Is taking measures to save wildlife important to us? We’ll soon see.

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