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Advocates pushing for 'wildlife accommodation sites' to curb animal deaths on Montana roads

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Posted at 6:36 PM, Oct 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-04 12:22:38-04

BILLINGS — Roads and highways are the lifeblood of travel, and while they get people from point A to point B, they can often be the end of the road for many animals.

Roadkill is an unfortunate staple across Montana, and wildlife face increasing pressure from vehicles and being forced away from food sources.

"Coming towards Hardin by Arrow Creek Road, I saw a giant brown, furry something with a giant pool of blood next to it. Somehow, I didn’t see any vehicle parts I was expecting along those lines to have a lot of fiber glass or windows... Through process of elimination, it had to have been a bear," said Billings resident Kai Walker on Tuesday.

Walker is an avid motorcyclist and said animal and vehicle interactions are a common occurrence.

"We’ve had to swerve deer multiple times and I had a co-worker’s wife that actually hit an elk coming to Billings from Red Lodge, near Joliet. So, it’s a constant thing and I don’t see it going away. It’s just part of life," added Walker.

The number of animals that are killed is staggering.

"Here in Montana, there’s about 17,000 car strikes vs. animals per year. That’s a lot. And in the US, it balloons to over a billion dollars in damage, so it’s a significant problem," said Jeff Ewelt, executive director of ZooMontana, on Tuesday.

There are about 6,000 animal carcasses collected yearly in Montana and around 3,200 wildlife-vehicle collisions are reported, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

One way some are trying to reduce these collisions is by building wildlife accommodation sites, which are normally underpasses along major highways that are built just for animals.

"Right now we have about 125 wildlife accommodations across the state. Most of them are in the western side but we do have quite a number on the eastern side as well," said Tom Martin, environmental services bureau chief for the Montana Department of Transportation on Tuesday.

He said about 10 to 20 sites are in eastern Montana, but the majority are along US Highway 93, north of Missoula.

"We’ve seen everything from grizzly bears to black bears, to moose, to elk, lots of elk, deer, even smaller mammals, wolves, we’ve even had big horn sheep go through them. It’s just a veritable Noah’s ark of animals that have gone underneath the roadway and avoided those collisions," added Martin.

With an impressive success rate.

"They range in effectiveness from about 43% reduction to about 83% reduction, and that just depends on where you’re at," Martin said.

Martin says authorities always have to weigh the cost-benefit analysis.

"The least cost is probably $500,000 and they can go up into the millions after that but over the long haul, they’re worth it," Martin added.

And the expectation is that more sites will be constructed possibly on the eastern side of the state soon as well.

"I would say in the next couple years, we’ll probably have on the order of probably 10 more," Martin added.