The public realizes when a major project gets underway, such as one related to oil development, that it will impact wildlife habitat. We forget that highway improvements also can change the landscape for animals.
So it makes sense for North Dakota Department of Transportation officials to plan wildlife crossings as part of the proposed expansion of U.S. Highway 85. During a recent highway expansion near Williston an underpass was included for moose in an important habitat area south of the Lewis and Clark Bridge. The DOT has proposed two more underpasses on Highway 85 for bighorn sheep, mule deer and other wildlife.
When the highways in the Badlands were two lanes and the traffic much lighter than now there wasn’t a need for crossings. With the oil boom came increased traffic and improved highways with more lanes. It made it more difficult for wildlife to cross and increased the chances of accidents.
"The ultimate goal from DOT was to provide a safe roadway for the traveling public. From the Game and Fish standpoint, we were looking to reduce collisions on the roadway and provide habitat connectivity," Bruce Kreft, conservation biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, told reporter Amy Dalrymple.
It’s difficult to judge the effectiveness of underpasses because it takes wildlife time to adjust to them. There’s a camera at the moose underpass and moose have been seen entering, but not crossing. Wildlife officials say it sometimes takes a generation to learn to use the crossings.
The North Dakota Wildlife Federation would like to see more wildlife crossings, including at least two overpasses for bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope. A bighorn sheep overpass was considered north of the Long X Bridge in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but the idea was dropped because agencies wanted to minimize the impact to the national park. The Wildlife Federation also favors wildlife crossings in the Grassy Butte and Fairfield areas to accommodate pronghorn antelope.
The crossings can be expensive. The corridor under the Long X Bridge serves as another wildlife crossing. The crossing system, which includes fencing and jump-outs, or one-way escape routes to prevent animals from getting stuck, is estimated to cost $7 million, according to a draft environmental impact statement. So cost will no doubt be a factor in determining how many crossings are created.
It’s important as much be done as possible. Safety of motorists is the first concern. However, the state has invested time and money into developing the bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope herds. We should do what’s necessary to create a safe habitat for them. Western North Dakota draws a lot of outdoor enthusiasts who love the opportunity to view wildlife and hunting, of course, remains a staple of North Dakotans.
If we disrupt wildlife habitat with projects, then we need to take steps to ease the burden on wildlife. It’s good to see the DOT and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department working together on that goal.