During hunting season here in North Dakota, it is critical for drivers to stay alert to avoid collisions. Every year tens of thousands of cars hit deer on North Dakota roads, a tragedy that takes precious lives and sends many more to the emergency room. Deer aren’t the only wildlife you are likely to see lying dead on the shoulder of the road. Elk, pronghorn, pheasant, sharp-tailed grouse and bighorn sheep are among countless species hit every year on our roads.
Collisions with vehicles, and roads themselves, can also deter wildlife from getting to food, water, seasonal habitat or mating opportunities they need to survive. As an avid hunter and as someone who cares deeply about conservation, all these impacts on wildlife pain me.
Unfortunately, North Dakota ranks 13th in the nation for most wildlife-vehicle collisions. As we continue to develop communities, expand oil and gas industries, widen roads and increase motor vehicle speeds, incidents of wildlife-vehicle collisions will expand exponentially.
While North Dakota ranks toward the top for wildlife-vehicle crashes, this is not unique to our state. In fact, The Federal Highway Administration estimates annually between 1 million to 2 million accidents involve drivers and animals on U.S. roadways. These crashes cause over 200 deaths and 30,000 injuries to humans and cost our economy $8 billion annually.
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But there are solutions and thankfully we are already seeing bipartisan leadership on this issue. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed with bipartisan support in the U.S. House and Senate and signed into law by President Biden, includes investments in wildlife-friendly infrastructure — things like wildlife crossing bridges, tunnels and culverts — that have a high success rate toward reducing collisions.
North Dakota’s own Senator Cramer has particularly focused on this solution, recognizing that wildlife crossings reduce collisions by upwards of 90% in areas where they are placed. It’s smart because it not only saves people’s lives and protects wildlife, but saves us all money whether it's car insurance, health care costs or taxpayer dollars used to repair damages.
There is still more work to be done though. We need a comprehensive focus on wildlife migration and movement corridors – the routes used by fish and wildlife to find sustainable feeding and breeding grounds throughout the year. These routes, which are how wildlife move throughout their life, can range from mere feet in the case of turtles moving between lakes, to hundreds of miles in the case of pronghorn migrating between seasonal habitats.
Legislation that supports landowners, communities, tribes, and federal and state agencies maintain wildlife movements through grants, mapping, study, and conservation would create safer roadways, protect wildlife from the impacts of development, and create better hunting and fishing opportunities.
Wildlife species aren’t confined to geographic or political boundaries, they move across private property, tribal lands, state and local properties and federal public lands. That’s why it is important to ensure all these entities have the resources and capacity to collaborate toward conserving wildlife migration and habitat connectivity.
Wildlife corridor support looks different depending on the circumstance – but it would include things like helping farmers afford wildlife friendly fencing so fewer animals are trapped by cattle fences, or helping tribal biologists monitor where and when wildlife move. Additionally, mapping wildlife routes, and coordinating federal, state and tribal decisions would ensure that conservation dollars are used more effectively, getting rid of redundancy, and maximizing the impact of these efforts.
Some of this work is already being done, through local organizations, tribal governments and states. But that work is often underfunded, and greater coordination between entities is needed.
To that end, bipartisan legislation that supports landowners and Tribes who help maintain wildlife movements, and supports coordinated wildlife migration mapping, study and conservation is greatly needed. It would support farmers, ranchers, Tribes and conservation organizations in the work they do to protect wildlife. It would guide investments in wildlife-friendly infrastructure like crossings and underpasses. And it would make sure that wildlife conservation efforts are coordinated between landowners, local organizations, tribes, the state and the federal government. Congress would do well to address this issue in any upcoming wildlife legislation.
John Bradley, Bismarck, is executive director of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation.