Opinion: Elk on the freeway go viral. This plan will help them cross safely
Wildlife crossings are desperately needed in Utah after several elk herds have been spotted on busy freeways
Earlier this month, videos of elk running alongside and across I-215 and I-80 near the Foothill Drive interchange went viral. The animals appeared to be trapped on one of the busiest areas for commuting traffic on the east side of valley. My husband and I drive through this area every day. Suddenly our commute included a feeling of dread that we might encounter an elk on the road. Luckily we did not, but not every driver was so lucky. It’s been reported that at least seven animals were killed in the area, a few I saw along the side of the road.
A short distance away, at the Echo Junction interchange between I-80 and I-84 another herd of elk has seen been trying to cross the highway. Over the past few weeks, at least 35 elk have been killed, and in response, the Utah Department of Transportation has temporarily lowered the speed limit to 60 mph.
With family in rural areas, I know that avoiding deer, elk and other animals can be a daily roll of the dice in some places. But regardless of where you live, collisions and near misses are becoming more common. As our human footprint continues to grow, wildlife, especially large mammals like elk, deer, moose, pronghorn, bears and mountains lions are feeling the pinch and ending up trapped on busy highways or forced to move closer to roads.
Utah is now seeing roughly 3,000 wildlife-vehicle collisions every year, costing the Utah public over $130 million annually.
But there is a solution!
While these startling and grisly scenes were playing out this week, just a few miles away, a bipartisan group of state legislators voted to approve $20 million for the design and construction of wildlife crossings, including underpasses, overpasses and exclusionary fencing that directs wildlife to these structures while also keeping them off roads.
Across the nation and the world, these structures are proving effective at keeping wildlife off roads, reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions and increasing connectivity between summer and winter ranges. And with this money, Utah is set to seize back its leadership role on this issue in the West. While Utah built the first overpass in the United States in 1975, other states, including Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado have leapt ahead in the planning and funding for these projects over the past three years.
And the timing of this legislation could not be more urgent. Later this month, the Federal Highways Administration is set to launch the Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program, a five-year, $350 million initiative to support state efforts to design and construct wildlife crossing structures. This program, along with other federal programs that support wildlife mitigation efforts, require a 20% match, meaning the $20 million currently allocated in the budget could bring in an additional $80 million for Utah. With plenty of matching dollars in hand and a long list of projects already identified by UDOT, Utah is well positioned to compete for this grant money, which will directly benefit not only wildlife, but everyone behind the wheel and everyone headed out to see, hunt or experience animals in the wild.
Now is the time to make this investment. We have strong leadership from elected representatives at the Capitol, support from agency staff at UDOT, a strong partnership with the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources and an engaged coalition of community groups ready to step up. Together, we can protect our wildlife, reduce collisions and create a safer and more sustainable transportation network in Utah.
Katie Davis is the executive director of Wildlands Network, a Utah-based nonprofit pursuing projects across North America that restore, reconnect and rewild habitats so that native species can thrive.