by Rachel Felver
April 19, 2021
Over 1.9 million people in the United States dealt with it in 2020. The flash of something coming toward you while driving down the road. Hearing the screech of your brakes, feeling the impact as something collides with your vehicle and then the sad realization that you just hit an animal.
When infrastructure, such as highways, are built through existing wildlife habitat, consequences exist for both animals and humans. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that from 2010-2019, 1,911 people died across the United States as a result of a motor vehicle accident involving an animal. And while no formal estimate exists for the number of wildlife killed as a result of vehicles, some put it as high as one million a day across the entire country.
Virginia takes action
The Commonwealth of Virginia has consistently been near the top of the list for animal-vehicle collisions for years, ranking number 12 in the country in 2020 for deer-related crashes (the most commonly-hit animal in the Commonwealth). The Virginia Conservation Network notes that deer-vehicle collisions in the state are the fourth costliest, averaging about $533 million per year.
In 2020, the Commonwealth decided that it was time to address this growing issue. The General Assembly passed legislation calling for the creation of a Wildlife Corridor Action Plan to identify areas throughout the state that would benefit from wildlife corridors. And in 2021, they went even further, building upon the 2020 legislation by directing several state agencies to incorporate the recommendations from the Wildlife Corridor Action Plan into their planning projects.
“Through this comprehensive policy measure, Virginia has an opportunity to ensure that game and non-game wildlife have a fighting chance to mitigate risks to their own lives as well as those of Virginians,” said Pat Calvert, senior policy and campaigns manager at the Virginia Conservation Network. “I call this a win-win situation.”
What is a wildlife corridor and why are they needed?
Wildlife corridors are crossings for wildlife over man-made infrastructure that re-connects a fragmented wildlife habitat. They can be green bridges, man-made overpasses, fish ladders, tunnels or culverts, to name a few examples. Wildlife corridors not only protect large mammals, but also amphibians, birds, plants and fish that migrate annually as part of their life cycle, or simply to survive.
Many animals on the move are actually searching for new, suitable habitat. In Virginia, a growing population has led to land being cleared for development and transportation, disrupting wildlife habitat and contributing to increases in air and water pollution. New roads and impervious surfaces mean more vehicles and stormwater runoff, bringing additional nutrient and sediment pollution into the region’s rivers and streams, making them uninhabitable to sensitive species. Climate change is also becoming a significant factor, as wildlife migrate to new areas simply to ensure their survival.
“As temperature and precipitation patterns shift as a result of climate change, wildlife is being driven to higher altitudes and higher latitudes to find adequate food, water and shelter”, said Zachary Sheldon, government relations associate with The Nature Conservancy. “Protecting wildlife corridors allows for the continued free movement of species to meet their future needs.”
Pilot shows benefits of wildlife corridors
Along Interstate 64, which traverses the Commonwealth of Virginia from Norfolk past Lexington, the Virginia Department of Transportation has installed one mile of eight-foot tall fencing along a bridge underpass, as well as a large box culvert to help guide animals into existing underpasses below the highway. Cameras were installed to monitor and collect findings from the pilot.
Along this section of Interstate 64, motor vehicles crashes caused by wildlife decreased by 92%. Deer-crossings alone increased 71% at the bridge underpass and 410% more at the box culvert. The migration of other animals increased 165% at the bridge underpass and 81% at the box culvert. At the study sites, the benefits from crash reduction exceeded the fencing costs in just under two years. Overall, the addition of a wildlife corridor resulted in an average savings of more than $2.3 million per site.
Wildlife corridors provide a variety of benefits to humans as well. They provide clean drinking water by conserving watershed areas, encourage healthier plant life and agriculture through increased pollination, reduce flooding impacts by providing additional erosion control, promote more plant growth and photosynthesis to assist with carbon sequestration, and even reduce the urban heat island effect.
With wildlife-vehicle collisions costing over $8 billion dollars annually, and one in five native species at risk across the United States, wildlife corridors are one of the most effective ways to prevent the loss of biodiversity while protecting public health and safety.
“This is the coolest bill ever,” said Virginia Senator Dave Marsden, who sponsored the legislation in both 2020 and 2021. “Where else can you protect wildlife habitat, reduce property damage from collisions with wildlife, save lives that are sometimes lost in these collisions, keep animals out of your backyard and your flower garden, and provide and opportunity for private groups to fund animal passage over interstates and any roadway that can make wildlife transit safer for all. I love this bill.”