Creating a New Normal for Wildlife on Highway 191

When was the last time you saw a dead animal lying on the side of the road? If you drive highways or rural roads often, it probably wasn’t that long ago. For many, it was this morning. Roadkill has become such a common sight that it is often brushed off as “normal.”

Deer are frequent casualties of road travel, but many types of wildlife are harmed or killed each year by high-use roads.

(Photo@USDA-Forest Service)

Both wildlife and humans must move across the landscape in order to meet life’s needs, but neither is safe where our paths intersect, and the damage is immense. Millions of wild animals are killed by vehicles each year in the U.S., and tens of thousands of people are injured, hundreds are killed, and many billions of dollars are incurred in damages and response. These losses do not need to be a normal part of our transportation system.

MDT's corridor study focuses on the section of Highway 191 between Four Corners and just south of Big Sky.

Map created by Minah Choi using ArcGIS

Montana—a state with one of the highest rates of wildlife-vehicle collisions—is ripe with opportunity to facilitate safer travel for wildlife and people. One opportunity deserving of special attention right now is improving the section of Highway 191 between Four Corners and Beaver Creek Road south of Big Sky. The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) is currently studying this roadway to explore safety improvement opportunities and develop a long-term plan for managing the travel “corridor,” which connects two of Montana’s fastest growing communities.

Many locals and visitors have experienced a wildlife collision or near miss while traveling between Bozeman and Big Sky. MDT’s data indicates that wildlife-vehicle collisions are the most common crash type in this corridor, accounting for 24% of all known crashes in the past 10 years. These numbers underrepresent the true losses because many animals struck by cars will never be reported, found, or even noticed. 

Small animals are not typically counted in state “carcass count” data and are often left out of discussions about wildlife-vehicle collision.

Photo@CC0

This corridor is uniquely valuable to wildlife, especially because it bisects wildlands within the northern reaches of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The area around 191 serves as important habitat for animals like elk, moose and bighorn sheep, while also providing habitat connectivity for wide-ranging and rarer species, including grizzly bear, wolverine and lynx. The movements of fish and other aquatic wildlife in the Gallatin River Watershed are also impacted by the highway.

Strategies that help wildlife cross roadways safely have proven hugely successful in limiting human and wildlife impacts and often generate economic benefits that outweigh their costs over time. These include overpasses, underpasses, animal detection systems, and more. There are challenges with implementing these strategies, to be sure. For example, wildlife crossing structures often involve large upfront investments that can be difficult for state transportation agencies to overcome. But safe passage advocates view these challenges as surmountable and have been pushing to secure funding at larger scales, for example, through the federal infrastructure bill. Those states that have already assessed priorities and evaluated wildlife improvement options will be best situated to benefit from this type of funding.

Some highway improvement projects can make it easier for animals to safely cross under the roadway by improving culverts or land paths under bridges. An adult mountain lion crosses through a culvert in the image above.

Photo@NPS

Certain roads, like Highway 191, are particularly valuable from both a social and ecological perspective. We commend MDT for listing both reducing animal-vehicle conflicts and accommodating wildlife movement as key objectives in the 191 corridor. The wildlife-related risks and losses on this highway are serious enough to warrant further assessment to ensure these objectives are met. MDT should affirmatively commit to conducting a comprehensive assessment of wildlife needs and improvement opportunities as part of its larger effort to improve safety on Highway 191 and to ensure wildlife can move freely throughout the area.

Realizing these kinds of opportunities will depend in part on concerned citizens to elevate the needs of wildlife throughout MDT’s planning process. MDT offers multiple ways to engage and comment on the 191 Corridor Study and is actively seeking input on public priorities. You can speak up for wildlife by adding your comment online using this public comment form. Be sure to select the 191 Corridor Study as the specific project.

Decision-making is happening right now in Yellowstone’s backyard that will impact Montanans, visitors and native wildlife for decades to come. Please let MDT know that safer passage for both humans and wildlife should be a planning priority for the Highway 191 Corridor Study—and a new normal for Montana.

Highway 191 parallels and crosses over the Gallatin River in the narrow canyon that separates the Gallatin from the Madison mountain ranges.

Photo@Jennifer Sherry

About the Authors

Jennifer Sherry

Wildlife Advocate, Nature Program

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