Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peats Sake: Roadkill Ruminations

By Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

It’s a busy time of year for critters. Winter is right around the corner and there is a lot to do to get ready. Migration plans must be made and kept to, winter stores of food need to be gathered and stashed away, and many have a very busy eating schedule necessary to fatten up for the long season ahead with no fresh food easily available. And there are lots of hunters running around trying to harvest them for dinner so the critters are on the move. This means we’ve got more of them running about in town looking for scarce resources and lingering along roadsides trying to get from Point A to Point B than at just about any other time of year – at least up here in Maine.

Now I’m not a vegetarian, but I do love animals and nothing makes me sadder than seeing roadkill. In my opinion, it is a senseless loss of life. First, the meat usually just sits there and rots – no one really wants to eat a squished possum or skunk or turtle (unless maybe you live in West Virginia and enjoy the annual Roadkill Cook-off…). If it’s a deer, elk or moose, it will likely go to a food bank to feed the hungry – but only after a lot of destruction and often, loss of human life due to the massive impact of their bodies on crushable automobiles.

But mostly it makes me sad because it reminds me of how much we have destroyed, depleted, and dissected critical habitat for these critters – particularly those in wetland environments. I was driving on a 6-lane interstate through Massachusetts about a year ago, and noticed an entire family of geese – momma and daddy goose and about half a dozen baby goslings – who were stuck in the median and were desperately hoping for a break in the constant stream of traffic (driving about 70-80 miles per hour). The parents had made the artificial wetland in the median their home where they raised their goslings, but they found themselves stuck. The goslings were too young to fly, but they had limited food in their median neighborhood. Essentially they were facing starvation if they stayed or certain death if they attempted to cross the road.

Why would we design a road like this which could trap a migratory bird family? The intentions were good I am certain. Most likely, the designers did not know much about wildlife biology. I imagine the designers felt that the artificial wetland would provide habitat and be an aesthetic benefit for drivers. In some places, these ponds were designed as a form of on-site mitigation banking, until the unintended impacts of wildlife mortality was discovered. Off-site mitigation opportunities now offer a way to compensate for on-site wetland damages by creating a similar wetland site further away that is not constrained by traffic.

All of this is to say, that I believe we are at a critical time of transition in history. We have learned a lot by specializing in various fields, and specialization is necessary, but in many ways we have lost sight of the bigger picture. In order to see the bigger picture, we will need to proactively develop more partnerships. Biologists will need to partner with transportation planners. Public works officials will need to partner with wetland scientists. Overall, a concerted effort to step out of our specializations will be necessary to see how our efforts and goals align with other specialized efforts. We need to think more long-term and step back to analyze the potential impact of our actions over a broader landscape perspective in order to anticipate the consequences of our actions and to prioritize trade-offs. We can only do this successfully through partnerships, collaboration, and information sharing. We need to be better about identifying goals, encouraging broader stakeholder involvement, weighing trade-offs, and maximizing project outcomes so that we can be better stewards of our nation’s resources.

Fortunately, the Federal Highway Administration, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (ASHTO), and State Departments of Transportation have been proactively seeking ways to partner with federal and state conservation agencies as well as national nonprofit organizations in an effort to find solutions for wildlife mortality associated with highway crossings. Wildlife overpass and tunnel designs have generated a substantial amount of discussion, debate and excitement lately. Some of these projects are substantially more expensive than others, but the benefits can be tremendous and should be considered not only in economic terms, but in environmental and human quality of life terms. Human mobility should not succeed only at the expense of wildlife mobility. There are actions we can take to provide options for all of us. And hopefully (for Peat’s Sake!), we’ll have fewer critters facing decisions like that of momma and daddy goose.

Here are some additional publications and resources of interest:

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