Educational Series: Roads and Highways are Wildlife Death Traps

By Nick Engelfried
Every year, an estimated one to two million large animals are hit by cars or trucks in the United States. The damage from these collisions for both wildlife and people is immense, and includes approximately 200 human deaths, 26,000 human injuries, and $8 billion in property damage. The precise number of animal deaths, while difficult to assess, is certain to be much larger. And, while many studies of roadkill fatalities focus on big mammals, smaller animals are at even greater risk. When small vertebrates like birds, reptiles, and amphibians are added to the list of casualties, the number rises to approximately one million per day. About 51,000 vertebrate animals are killed annually by vehicles in and around Saguaro National Park alone, with over 50 percent of the victims being reptiles.

Yet, as roads encroach ever farther into animal habitat–and as animals are forced to migrate to new areas in response to changing climates–we can expect this problem to get even worse without significant intervention. Roads have become an existential threat to entire animal species. Clearly, something must be done, and soon.

The huge number of animal fatalities from vehicle collisions stems partly from the fact that cars and trucks are–on the scale of evolutionary time–still very new inventions. Picture a deer wandering onto a busy roadway in a town or rural area; if you have ever witnessed this phenomenon, it’s likely you winced at the way the animal stepped into the path of approaching cars, apparently heedless of the danger. Even in the face of oncoming traffic, most animals do not possess a survival instinct that would warn them to stay away. The reason is simple: they have not yet had time to evolve such a response to the machines that carry us from place to place in our modern age.

Because motor vehicles do not closely resemble the natural predators that wildlife have learned to avoid, most fail to react to their presence with the same caution they would show in other dangerous situations. Of course, cars also move much faster than almost any animal predator, leaving wildlife like deer and elk unable to assess the seriousness of the threat literally racing toward them.

As a result of all this, millions of unsuspecting creatures wander into the paths of oncoming vehicles–only to pay the ultimate price for it. And, unfortunately, not all wildlife populations have the capacity to successfully rebound from the loss in numbers; in fact, for species like the endangered Florida panther, roadkill deaths are one of the primary threats to their continued survival. Luckily, there are steps we can take as a society to greatly reduce the number of animal deaths that happen on our roads. Most of these solutions have to do with providing wildlife with a way to cross roads as they wish–but do so safely.

An example of what this looks like can be found about an hour’s drive from Seattle, where the I-90 Wildlife Bridge stretches over the busy highway, giving animals a chance to get to the other side while cars speed by below. Deer, elk, coyotes, cougars, and black bears are all among the species the bridge is designed to help. Fences built along the highway help guide animals to the bridge so they don’t wander heedlessly across the dangerous road. This project, completed in 2019, provides an elegant example of what protecting animals from our vehicles can look like, and its successes are being replicated elsewhere.

Wildlife overpasses (and underpasses) don’t just make intuitive sense; data shows they are effective, in some cases reducing the incidence of animal-vehicle collisions by as much as 90 percent. Yet, despite this proven track record of success, too many highways and other roads still lack effective ways for animals to get across safely. We urgently need more projects like the I-90 Wildlife Bridge, and funding for their construction is key.

Animal fatalities on roadways have been an issue since roads and cars first encroached into wildlife habitat. Roads can fragment animal territories–especially for species like cougars, whose territories may stretch across more than 100 square miles. They also fragment animal populations, cutting them off from each other and leading to inbreeding. However, climate change poses new problems to animals who are at risk of literally being caught in the oncoming headlights. As weather patterns shift and ecosystems change in response, many species will need to adapt by following their habitat’s changing boundaries. So it is that in an age of human-induced climate change, ensuring roads don’t pose a barrier to animal movements has become more important than ever.

Happily, there has been at least some progress toward addressing this issue at a federal level–including passage of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which sets aside $350 million to fund the construction of new wildlife bridges on our roadways. States, local governments, and Indigenous tribal nations can all apply for grants from this pot of money to fund overpasses in their areas of jurisdiction. Precisely how the funds will be used and whether they will be distributed in a way that delivers maximum benefits still has yet to be seen. However, the bipartisan support for this law suggests a national movement to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions is picking up steam.

What comes next for this movement? In addition to capitalizing on funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, it is essential that state, local, and federal authorities take wildlife into account when designing and permitting roads. It’s also important to recognize that this is an international issue, affecting animals not just in the United States but all over the world. A survey of studies on the effect of roadkill on wildlife populations found that African wild dogs, Tasmanian devils, quolls (a type of small marsupial), and giant anteaters are among the species whose global populations are suffering because of this threat. As the U.S. continues to build more wildlife bridges, it is essential that lessons learned from this process be disseminated around the world.

No animal–whether deer, cougar, or wild dog–is equipped to survive a massive piece of metal hurtling toward them at highway speed. Collisions between cars and wildlife are a threat to people, individual animals, and even the continued existence of entire species. However, the successes achieved so far in reducing wildlife deaths show there is a path to a future where this danger is brought under control. Animal lovers everywhere can play a role in this movement by letting policymakers and elected officials know we want making roads safer for wildlife to be an urgent, life-saving priority.

Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall

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Approximately how many human injuries are caused by animal-vehicle collisions in the U.S. every year?
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Which law set aside $350 million in 2021 to fund wildlife bridges?
Wildlife bridges have been found to reduce animal-vehicle collisions by how much?
True or false: Wildlife-vehicle collisions cost billions of dollars every year
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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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