Press release from Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project
Today, the Safe Passage Fund Coalition applauds the North Carolina House of Representatives for appropriating $5 million in funding for infrastructure to help reduce wildlife–vehicle collisions across the state. This infrastructure — which includes overpasses, underpasses and fencing along roads and highways — is critical in increasing safety along roadways for wildlife and humans alike.
“We are so grateful that the House has prioritized funding to reduce wildlife–vehicle collisions on Interstate 40 near the Smokies and elsewhere around North Carolina,” said Jeff Hunter, Southern Appalachian director of National Parks Conservation Association, a Safe Passage Fund Coalition member. “This is a win-win for wildlife and the motoring public. We encourage the Senate to appropriate $5 million in their budget to help leverage federal dollars to address this issue statewide.”
According to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, 20,331 wildlife–vehicle collisions were reported across the state in 2019, and 18,607 such collisions were reported in 2020 — a decrease the NCDOT largely attributes to reduced travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2021 release from the department additionally estimated that 7% of all reported vehicle crashes in the state involve animal strikes, with almost half occurring in the twilight hours or at night, between October and December.
“North Carolina’s funding to support wildlife safe passage across roads will help provide habitat connectivity essential for the persistence of healthy North Carolina wildlife populations, especially in the face of environmental changes that are increasingly transforming and fragmenting landscapes,” said Liz Hillard, Safe Passage co-research lead and senior wildlife biologist at Wildlands Network, a member of the coalition.
All appropriated funds will help leverage unprecedented federal resources and could help complete projects currently underway. In the Pigeon River Gorge, one such project, along I-40 at Exit 7 near Harmon Den, has seen progress recently with the installation of wildlife benches and cattle guards to deter wildlife from making dangerous crossings into traffic. But critically important fencing to funnel wildlife under the highway has not yet been installed due to lack of funding.
Earlier this year, members of the Safe Passage Fund Coalition issued an action alert to their supporters to urge N.C. Governor Roy Cooper to allocate funding to protect wildlife from roadway collisions, citing President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included $350 million for wildlife crossing construction over and under roadways.
“Protecting wildlife from roadway collisions is critical for infrastructure, the safety of motorists, natural ecosystems, and maintaining a positive image for North Carolina,” said Tim Gestwicki, CEO of North Carolina Wildlife Federation and chair of Safe Passage Fund Coalition’s Steering Committee. “As roadway construction creates new barriers to long-established wildlife corridors, inevitably animals are increasingly encountering humans and their vehicles. These encounters result in animal and human injuries and fatalities, as well as increased costs for motorists and insurers, and litter our highways with decaying carcasses. Safe Passage Fund Coalition members encourage, and in fact urge North Carolina to join other states across the country to take proactive steps to reduce these wildlife–vehicle collisions.”
The Safe Passage Fund Coalition comprises The Conservation Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, Great Smoky Mountains Association, National Parks Conservation Association, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, Wildlands Network and The Wilderness Society — all of which are dedicated to making the 28-mile section of Interstate 40 in the Pigeon River Gorge a safer place for wildlife and humans alike. They are supported by a stakeholder group of nearly 20 federal, state, tribal, and non-governmental organizations that have been meeting about the issue since 2017. More information on the coalition can be found at smokiessafepassage.org.