With its vast and diverse landscapes, Texas is home to thousands of animal species, including some found nowhere else in the world. But expanding human development poses a threat to native wildlife, and there’s no better example than Texas’ highways.
More than 50,000 animal-vehicle collisions were reported to Texas police between 2010 and 2016 – and that number is likely a major undercount.
The Texas Department of Transportation has been building wildlife crossings since the 90s in an effort to keep both animals and drivers safe. In August, TxDOT applied for funding from the federal Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program to boost those efforts.
TxDOT environmental specialist John Young joined the Standard to tell us more.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:
Texas Standard: Give us an overview of this Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program. What is it exactly, and why is Texas applying for a grant from it?
John Young: The Wildlife Crossings grant program is part of this Federal Highway Administration program – part of their $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It’s made $350 million available to states over the next five years for construction of wildlife crossings.
Like bridges, or overpasses over roads? Is that what we’re talking about here?
Right. Wildlife crossings come in three different types. There are the big, over-the-road landscape bridges that people may see out west for pronghorn and whatnot. Then there’s crossings that are at our bridges, and as long as there’s room along the creek bank or under a bridge for animals to move through, they’ll often pass under.
We also can look at our box culverts, which are usually for drainage, right? When it rains, we want water to run through those instead of up and over the road. But when they’re dry, they offer opportunities for things like bobcats, ocelots and raccoons to go under the road rather than over.
How well do these structures really work in practice? Because, of course, you can’t really give animals a road sign, “this way to the other side.” What have you found by way of experience?
After wildlife crossings are made available to animals, they start to use them, but the usage rate picks up over time. Like on State Highway 100 near Laguna Atascosa, we’ve monitored those wildlife crossings for between two and five years. Over that time period, the number of animals that cross under the road and use those structures increased.
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What about the benefits to drivers and humans?
There’s a lot of benefits for drivers and humans. One of the reasons that we started this Wildlife Crossings program is because of animal-vehicle collisions. Texas leads the nation in human fatalities due to animal-vehicle collisions.
When we look at constructing these wildlife crossings, bridges are more effective than the smaller culverts. But both keep animals off the road. That way, drivers aren’t going to encounter a deer or a raccoon or an ocelot.
So, you applied for this pilot program. What are you hearing back, or have you heard back? What would you do with the money if you got it?
We haven’t heard back yet. The Federal Highway Administration is still looking at the applications and deciding who they’re going to fund. What we would do with this money is ask for improvements to our camera monitoring.
Right now, we’ve been using individual flash cameras. But what we’re finding is that sometimes a game camera fires and no pictures are there. We put in for these 24-hour surveillance cameras, and we want to use artificial intelligence to help sort those images to tell us when there’s an animal present, rather than having graduate students sort through the imagery one at a time, which is what we currently do.
We also wanted to look at using GPS collars on ocelots, bobcats and coyotes. We want to see how they interact with the road and how they interact with these crossings to see if they’re effective for ocelots, specifically. But because ocelot are so rare, we use bobcat and coyote as surrogates.
We’ve been reporting on efforts to repopulate ocelots, in South Texas especially. Are there specific regions that would be prioritized in upcoming projects?
It’s very difficult to say, because a lot of this is about where we see animal-vehicle collision issues. They pretty much occur all across the state from the analysis that we’ve done in the past. We’ve got mule deer crossing out in the El Paso district up in the Franklin Mountains. We’ve got several other aquatic crossings in the Austin district near Bastrop State Park, which are for the endangered Houston toad. And of course, we have our ocelot crossings.
What we’re trying to do is match when a road project comes up, because it’s a whole lot cheaper to incorporate wildlife crossing structures into an existing road project than it is to say, “hey, we have a wildlife collision issue and we want to create a land bridge here.”
When do you find out?
I’m thinking we’re supposed to know by November.