Win for HSUS is a gain, yet not the most cost-effective way to save animal & human lives on highways
WASHINGTON D.C.––The first official U.S. national commitment to preventing roadkills of wildlife appears to have been buried deep within the $1.3 trillion Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act signed into law U.S. President Joe Biden on November 15, 2021.
Humane Society Legislative Fund president Sara Amundson, for one, was quick to acclaim what she termed “an historic allocation of $350 million for grants to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and vehicle collisions through enhanced animal-friendly infrastructure at overpasses and underpasses across the U.S.”
“The target of our policy efforts”
Added Amundsen, “We made this funding the target of our policy efforts.”
Sometimes the Humane Society of the United States [HSUS], of which the Humane Society Legislative Fund is a subsidiary, claims credit for things it actually had something to do with.
In this case both HSUS and the Humane Society Legislative Fund can step up and take a bow for at last accomplishing one of the first stated goals of the organization when it was originally incorporated in 1954 as the then-National Humane Society.
Among the incorporators was Delos Culver (1894-1967), who was already president of the Defenders of Fur Bearers, the anti-trapping society ancestral to Defenders of Wildlife. Culver doubled as a director of the National Parks Association and lobbyist for the Pennsylvania SPCA, Delaware County SPCA, and Humane Societies of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
Somehow Culver persuaded then-U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon to pose for a photo holding up a poster saying “Give Wildlife A Brake.”
Roadkill along the Beltway
A few years later, legend has it, the entire National Humane Society staff, then about a dozen people, turned out with another few dozen volunteers to do a day-long roadkill count along the route of the Washington D.C. Beltway, then under construction.
This 1957 single-day count, of which ANIMALS 24-7 has not unearthed documentation, was purportedly the basis for a much-publicized claim that cars kill approximately one million animals per day in the U.S., a claim which has been affirmed, more-or-less, by many studies since.
On the one hand, Americans today drive five times more miles per year than in 1957––and ten times more miles per year than in 1937, when one study suggested that drivers then killed animals at about 30 times the present rate.
On the other hand, road improvements and improvements in vehicular safety have markedly reduced the roadkill toll per mile driven, even as the populations of all common wildlife species have recovered from their mid-twentieth century recorded lows.
Techno-fixes instead of teaching drivers
The Humane Society of the U.S. returned to roadkill study with “The Impact of Highways on Wildlife and the Environment: A Review of Recent Progress in Reducing Roadkill,“ an extensive report by HSUS staff members Susan Hagood and Marguerite Troeme included in the HSUS publication The State of the Animals II: 2003, edited by Deborah J. Salem & Andrew N. Rowan.
While the Hagood and Troeme report probably was at that time the most comprehensive look at roadkill between any one set of covers, it focused almost entirely on technological fixes instead of driver education about animal behavior around cars––the approach to preventing roadkill emphasized by Culver and Nixon, and for more than 30 years by ANIMALS 24-7.
How far will $350 million for wildlife crossings go?
Wrote Amundson, “We already know that wildlife crossings, whether in the form of spacious tree-lined overpasses or unobtrusive tunnels, can strengthen habitat connectivity, reduce the incidence of fatal accidents that claim human and animal lives, and ensure the migration opportunities and genetic diversity of countless wildlife species.
“Currently, there are only about 1,000 such wildlife passages across the country’s four-million-mile road network,” Amundson guesstimated, probably on the high side, “and more are urgently needed.”
But this raises the question, how much does a wildlife overpass or underpass cost to build?
How far will the $350 million in the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act actually go toward saving animals’ lives?
Investment will be a start
Parks Canada roadkill researcher Michael Sawaya, whose work has contributed to building the pioneering safe wildlife crossings in and around Banff National Park, Alberta, estimated in 2014 Canadian dollars that a wildlife overpass typically costs $2 million to $4 million to build and landscape. Underpasses––which are not landscaped––may cost a tenth as much.
Translated into 2021 U.S. dollars, $350 million might, if judiciously and conservatively spent, buy about 100 wildlife overpasses, or up to 1,000 underpasses, or several hundred safe wildlife crossings if the overpass and underpass approaches are both used in appropriate places.
A strong case can be made that the investment will be worthwhile, albeit barely a start toward roadkill prevention.
Safe crossings can reduce roadkills by 97%––in those places
According to Wildlife-Vehicle Conflict, Crossing Structures, & Cost Estimates, a 2019 report by Rob Ament, Renee Callahan, and Elizabeth Fairbank of the Center For Large Landscape Conservation in Bozeman, Montana, “Reported collisions between motorists and wildlife cause more than 200 human fatalities and over 26,000 injuries each year, at an annual cost to Americans of more than $8 billion.
“Research studies show that wildlife crossing structures that guide animals over or under our nation’s highways reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions by up to 97%, when placed in areas of known wildlife movement and combined with associated fencing and jump-out structures that allow wildlife caught on the highway to exit.
Crossings can pay for themselves
“Researchers have estimated,” Ament, Callahan, and Fairbank continued, “that the average cost of a deer-vehicle collision is $8,190, an elk-vehicle collision is $25,319 , and a moose-vehicle collision is $44,546 in U.S. dollars.”
Thereby, Ament, Callahan, and Fairbank explained, “Properly sited wildlife crossing structures can pay for themselves where situated along highways that, on average, experience an average of five or more collisions between motorists and deer per mile per year, an average of two or more collisions with elk per mile per year, or an average of one or more collisions with moose per mile per year.
“It actually costs society less to solve the problem of wildlife-vehicle collisions,” Ament, Callahan, and Fairbank concluded, than it costs to do nothing.”
But are wildlife overpasses and underpasses the most cost-effective approach to roadkill prevention?
The very first roadkill count on record, conducted on June 13, 1924 by Iowa State University biologist Dayton Stoner and his Norwegian-born wife, ornithologist Lillian R. Christianson, suggests in comparison to the 1937 study, done by the Greenville County Highway Department in Greenville, North Carolina, that animal/car collisions relative to road miles traveled were already falling even then.
Warned Dayton Stoner in Science, describing their findings, “The automobile demands recognition as one of the important checks upon the natural increase of many forms of life.”
Stoner (1883-1944) was later the official New York state zoologist; Christianson (1885-1978) was for twenty years the New York state ornithologist.
The marked reduction in roadkills per mile implied by comparison of the Stoner/Christianson data with the 1937 data, and of the 1937 data with more recent studies, from a 1951 study done in Pennsylvania to the latest studies available, suggests that roadkill prevention has historically been accomplished mostly unawares, as result of almost incidental transitions in driving habits and circumstances.
Specifically, formal driver education barely existed in either 1924 or 1937, and was just beginning in 1951.
Further, almost every driver today soon acquires more driving experience than almost any driver had in 1924, a mere 16 years after the introduction of the Model T Ford began to “put America on wheels,” in manufacturer Henry Ford’s words.
Even in 1937, few drivers logged as many as 13,500 miles per year, the current average.
Driving experience alone therefore may be recognized as enabling drivers to avoid hitting animals, even if most drivers give roadkill avoidance little conscious attention.
But much else changed between 1924 and 1937 to the benefit of wildlife along roadsides, and has continued to change since then.
Outside of big cities, few roads were then paved, or lined with sidewalks or emergency stopping lanes. Drivers therefore had much less opportunity to see animals emerging abruptly from fields, forests, and landscaped yards. Animals also had less chance to see cars coming.
Further, even if a driver did see an animal, either braking or swerving to avoid the animal was much more dangerous on dirt roads, especially before the advent of anti-lock brakes.
What has never been done systematically, in the entire history of automobiles and driver education, is adding even five or ten minutes about roadkill avoidance to driver education curriculums.
How far could $350 million for roadkill avoidance education go?
There are currently 13,800 public school districts in the United States which either directly or indirectly receive some federal funding.
$350 million divided among 13,800 public school districts to fund the addition of roadkill avoidance to their driver education curriculums would amount to more than $25,000 each––enough to hire a part-time instructor specifically for the job.
That large a funding commitment to driver education about roadkill avoidance should not really be necessary. A mere fraction of that level of investment, equal to the cost of just building a dozen wildlife overpasses, could do the job.
But making every young driver aware of how to avoid hitting deer, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, birds, and all other species either commonly hit, or with whom collisions are often fatal to drivers and passengers, could save far more animal and human lives than any amount of investment in infrastructure, no matter how welcome and useful the infrastructure investment may also be.
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