Collaborative works to reduce I-40 animal deaths

The Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Connectivity Project is a joint effort of at least 19 nonprofit and governmental groups working to bring the death rate of wildlife on Interstate-40 through the gorge down.

The many groups under the connectivity project umbrella, including the N.C. and Tennessee Departments of Transportation, U.S. Forest Service, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, recognize the increasing hazards of vehicle collisions. Since the 28-mile stretch of I-40 between the Maggie Valley exit and the Foothills Parkway in Tennessee first opened in 1968, changes on both the human and animal sides of the equation have heightened the risk.

According to Bill Stiver, supervisory wildlife biologist for the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park, black bear populations in the park have risen from roughly 400-600 to around 1,600 over the past 30 years. Over the same period, annual park visitation has gone from approximately 8.5 million to 11.4 million — with I-40 representing a major route to the park from the east.

In a recently concluded study, Stiver continued, 90% of male bears tagged with GPS collars within park boundaries had ranges extending beyond its borders. “Essentially, the park is not big enough for the bear population to be self-sustaining,” he explained. “If those bears can’t get across I-40, they can’t get to suitable habitat.”

And elk, which were completely absent from the I-40 landscape during its planning and construction, were reintroduced in 2001. Their population now numbers about 150; a bull elk can weigh half a ton, roughly four times the weight of the average adult male bear. These massive animals, said Wildlands Network researcher Liz Hillard, are “path-of-least-resistance walkers” and often follow roads instead of climbing over mountains.

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