A new plan proposes 12 sites around Teton County for wildlife crossing structures to improve motorist and wildlife safety.
“I think that this is a pretty significant step,” county commission Chairman Mark Newcomb said, “to get to this point where we’re looking at some very tangible ways to address wildlife-vehicle collisions.”
In 2016 the county hired Western Transportation Institute to create the Teton County Wildlife Crossings Master Plan for $100,000. It’s called for in the town and county’s Integrated Transportation Plan.
“As a community we have decided through our Comprehensive Planning efforts that wildlife conservation and wildlife crossings are integral to our future,” an introduction to the plan says. “Taking these next steps will pay dividends to the future conditions of Jackson and how we interact as a community with the broader ecosystem.”
The Highway 22 and Highway 390 intersection, Highway 22 west of Coyote Canyon, and Camp Creek are listed as top priorities reviewed by consultants and a local advisory group.
“It’s great to have the study, but it doesn’t mean anything unless we can pull the trigger and move forward,” Commissioner Paul Vogelheim said. “I really applaud the work that you guys have done in terms of identifying the three projects to kickstart this and prioritize. That’s the toughest part about this job, is prioritizing with limited funds.”
The report focuses on wildlife-vehicle collisions as a human safety issue as much as a conservation issue, giving both factors equal weight in the prioritization of the proposed crossing sites.
“Independent of collisions, we want to be able to allow wildlife to go from one side of the road to the other side of the highway,” said Marcel Huijser, a lead author of the plan.
Not just lives, but money saved
But it also frames wildlife crossings as a question of cost-benefit analysis.
“The cost for a collision is a combination of the average costs due to vehicle damage, human injury, human fatality, and lost wildlife value to hunters,” the report says.
It makes the case that investing in wildife crossing structures can be less costly in the long run than letting wildlife-vehicle collisions continue.
Consultants compiled data from law enforcement, WYDOT’s carcass removal data, data from Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation and Jackson Hole Nature Mapping, and data on migration corridors and important habitat to identify and prioritize the sites.
“A substantial portion of the highways in Teton County cut across important migration corridors and habitat for mule deer and elk,” the report says.
The plan says signage and speed limits are ineffective methods to reduce wildlife vehicle collisions. That’s because posting a speed limit that falls below the speed a highway is designed for can be dangerous. And signs work only when they are specific to the time and place, such as an animal detection system that would alert drivers to the presence of an animal.
Instead, the report encourages the use of physical wildlife crossing structures, combined with several miles of fencing to steer animals toward the appropriate crossing locations. That could be underpasses, overpasses or at-grade detection systems, depending on the landscape and the preferences of the animals. For instance, elk and moose prefer overpasses to underpasses.
“Wildlife fences in combination with wildlife crossing structures (underpasses and overpasses) are the most robust mitigation measures that can reduce collisions with large wild animals by 80 to 100 percent and allow wildlife to cross the highway safely,” the report says.
How to pay the cost
A committee of county engineers and planners, biologists and advocacy groups considered the study and developed rankings incorporating the researchers’ findings as well as local factors, such as surrounding land ownership, political viability and support from partner agencies. For example, the top priority site at the intersection of 22 and 390 is expected to be reconstructed soon by WYDOT. Already disturbing the intersection could provide an opportunity for adding an underpass in important moose habitat.
Now that the plan is complete, the open question is how to fund its proposals. The report also includes ideas for funding sources for the crossings, highlighting opportunities for state, federal and private grants.
Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance policy manager Leah Zamesnik said the report is valuable because it shows the county’s “buy-in” for wildlife crossings. She said the sites listed aren’t exactly a surprise, but it’s important that the report is data-driven.
“Having the science to back up what we’re doing along with anecdotal stories, I think, is really important,” Zamesnik said.
The county has allocated $150,000 in its fiscal year 2019 budget for wildlife crossings to pay for preliminary planning, engineering, cost estimating and design. The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance has been vocal about its support for placing wildlife crossings on the next possible specific purpose excise tax ballot. A discussion of a potential SPET ballot is tentatively planned for the town and county’s June joint information meeting.
“We know there is a lot of support in the community,” Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance wildlife crossings organizer Ryan Nourai said. “We’d like to see this show up immediately, or as soon as possible, as a SPET measure.”
For the county, the next step is formal adoption of the plan.