Paradise Valley is where buffalo roam and the deer and antelope play. As the only year-round route into Yellowstone National Park, Highway 89 is used by more than a million park visitors annually. Anglers and boaters are drawn to fishing access sites along the Yellowstone River that Highway 89 follows for 56 miles from Livingston to Gardiner.
53% wildlife crashes
More than half of the motor vehicle crashes along that highway involve wildlife. A Montana Department of Transportation Study found that 53 percent of crashes reported to the Montana Highway Patrol involve wildlife. Among 286 crashes reported from 2007 to 2012, 142 involved wildlife and nine involved domestic animals.
Those are reported crashes. Another MDT study found that an average of 150 animal carcasses per year have been removed from that roadway.
Mule and white-tail deer account for 93 percent of carcasses. But MDT also has collected dead elk on the road, along with bighorn sheep, bison, an antelope, a bear and a moose. Perhaps some of these animals dropped dead along the road without running into a vehicle. But surely most were hit and not reported.
MDT has gathered a tremendous amount of data on wildlife in this beautiful corridor. The data even show how many carcasses retrieved along each mile.
Now MDT must use that information to make Highway 89 safer for motorists and for wildlife.
Wildlife advocates have voiced concerns that MDT hasn’t integrated wildlife collision mitigation into its overall planning as it has other roadway issues.
Bart Melton of National Parks Conservation Association commended MDT for exploring the issue of wildlife in the Paradise Valley corridor. However, he said MDT hasn’t incorporated wildlife issues into a holistic plan. The department needs to work with Fish, Wildlife and Parks and other land managers who have experience working with property owners on wildlife issues, Melton said.
In comments filed last month, Patrick Flowers, regional FWP supervisor, noted that the crash rate on this stretch of 89 is higher than the state average.
“We have concerns with the long-term effects of high collision rates and increasing vehicle traffic on wildlife; collision can have direct impacts on small populations, and highways are known to impede animals’ ability to move across the landscape,” Flowers wrote.
He noted that bighorn and antelope populations are small in this area, so the loss of any individuals is a concern. Highway 89 bisects the elk winter range for animals coming out of the park.
Faster traffic concern
Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenk commented to MDT that “much of the current plan is designed to make traffic move faster, which may have the unintended consequence of additional wildlife mortality in this corridor.”
Tom Martin, MDT environmental bureau chief in Helena, told The Gazette that his department is “committed to looking at mitigation of wildlife-vehicle collisions and wildlife connectivity.’’ However, no MDT information was available on how wildlife issues would be incorporated into actual projects.
As MDT prepares to accommodate more vehicle traffic on Highway 89, it must prepare to reduce the risk of wildlife collisions.
Mitigation should include reduced speed limits in areas known to have a lot of wildlife and a lot of collisions, as FWP recommends.
Strategic placement of warning signs would alert motorists to wildlife hazards. Wildlife warning systems, underpasses and overpasses have been effective at reducing collisions on other critter corridors. Those techniques should be part of the plan for Paradise Valley. The plan for reducing wildlife collisions must include what’s needed on the entire corridor and how to address those needs every time a project is done along this scenic route.
Reducing collisions will be a win-win. Fewer injuries and less property damage suffered by visitors and Paradise Valley residents, less harm to the iconic wildlife that draws tourists and money to Paradise.