ASHEVILLE – Jennifer Pharr Davis was driving home on I-26 after having dinner with her parents in Hendersonville shortly after 7 p.m. position” outside the median right in front of her car.
“There was really no reaction time. … I hit it, and the airbags went off, and it was a big impact. I drive a Toyota Prius, so hitting a really big bear at 60 mph did a lot of damage to the car,” he said. “My kids in the back are starting to cry and ask what happened, and I’m trying to get to safety on the interstate.”
The Prius was totaled, but Davis and his sons drove away without a scratch. As the founder of the Blue Ridge Hiking Co., and a renowned hiker, backpacker, and author, Davis’s mind quickly turned to the safety of animals, like the bear she punched, attempting to cross I-26 near the Blue Ridge Parkway. and the French Broad River. The next day, she formed a petition titled “Safe passage for wildlife on I-26 Asheville” which advocates adding wildlife alleys or other mitigations near where you had your accident.
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“[H]Crazy thing is the tow truck driver said it was the fifth black bear crash on that stretch of 26 this week,” Davis wrote in the Change.org petition.
The petition had more than 3,100 signatures on the night of November 14.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation considered adding wildlife alleys to the I-26 project before the start of construction in 2019, according to NCDOT spokesman David Uchiyama. But after engineers studied crash data from 2009 to 2012, they decided that the passages would not substantially reduce the frequency of collisions, especially with the large number of bridges, culverts, and other crossings available to wildlife that are already present in the stretch, he said.
“The study, commissioned by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, revealed that only six percent of all crashes were collisions with animals (including deer). The data revealed no discernible pattern in crashes or a concentrated area of crashes along the 22.2-mile study corridor,” Uchiyama said in an email.
Now would be a good time to review those plans and add some wildlife crossing mitigation efforts like walkways or fencing, Davis said, since all construction equipment and crews are already in place. But it may not be that easy, said Jeff Hunter, southern Appalachian director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“Actually, the best time to implement that would have been in the planning several years ago,” said Hunter, who was recently named Wildlife Conservator of the Year at the North Carolina Wildlife Federation Governor’s Conservation Awards. , partly because of his age. long work helping to create safe road crossings for wildlife.
“It’s a challenge, right? Because these agencies, the way they work, it’s hard for them to respond in real time to these kinds of things, but I’m grateful that DOT has taken the issue of vehicle collisions with wildlife very seriously. “, said.
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Conditions may have changed since the NCDOT study because the black bear population in the region has been steadily growing, Hunter said, but without seeing the study itself, he said he couldn’t speculate whether or not it was still accurate. However, the area where Davis crashed has been of interest to the Wildlands Network, which published a report in September on the Top 20 Priority Sites for Wildlife Road Crossings in North Carolinaaccording to Hunter.
“It didn’t make the top 20, but it ranked pretty high,” Hunter said of the stretch of I-26 that includes the Blue Ridge Parkway overpass and the French Broad River Bridge.
Information on car accidents involving animals is hard to come by. Hunter said both his organization and the Wildlands Network, which partners with his organization on a number of different projects, rely on investigative methods such as wildlife cameras and drive-thru surveys to examine places of interest. The North Carolina State Highway Patrol has data on crashes involving wildlife, but that data is difficult to access and poorly organized.
“Our system would only show animal collisions for I-26. It does not show any details about the type of animal or the exact location other than the next closest road. And even then you would have to take every single accident off the report,” Highway Patrol spokesman Rohn Silvers said in an email.
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Pigeon River Gorge Steps
On one of the closest stretches of highway identified by the Wildlands Network as a priority for wildlife crossings, NCDOT is working with a coalition of nonprofit organizations to add wildlife passages to the bridges the agency is renovating
However, there are significant differences between the projects on I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge and the improvements being made to I-26, Uchiyama said.
“One area involves more than 20 miles of widening through a primarily urban area, the other involves replacing bridges across the sparsely populated Pigeon River Gorge,” he said. “Each of the bridge replacement projects along I-40 is correlated with a high concentration of animal collisions as documented by environmental partners, and where the natural topography of the mountains guides the animals.”
NCDOT worked with Safe Passage, a coalition of the Wildlands Network, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, National Parks Conservation Association, Great Smoky Mountains Association, Defenders of Wildlife, The Conservation Fund and The Wilderness Society, to develop wildlife crossings at five bridge sites aged.
One such bridge, spanning Harmon Den Road and Cold Spring Creek, was completed in May with the addition of wildlife passages. On October 28, NCDOT broke ground on the next site, two bridges over White Oak Road, which will also include wildlife walkways.
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Once all three bridges are complete, wildlife fencing will be added at all three locations, further pushing wildlife into the passages and away from oncoming traffic.
Hunter, who was recently recognized as the North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s Conservationist of the Year for his work on the wildlife passageways on I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge, said data on how many crashes these passages avoid are not they will be available until well after the fence. is in place.
Animals need space to move.
The most obvious reason wildlife passages are important is because they prevent animals from being hit by cars, but their benefit extends beyond saving the lives of animals who choose to cross, according to Liz Hillard, senior biologist at wildlife of the Appalachian region on the Wildlands Network. .
“A big thing that people envision is that wildlife overpasses will reduce wildlife mortality along highways. That happen. Number two is: they really help with the human security aspect. With the elk population growing and moving onto these highways, hitting a thousand-pound animal is a human safety risk,” he said.
An often overlooked aspect of wildlife strikes is the economic impact, Hillard said. When he hit a deer this summer, his car suffered $8,000 in damage, but the costs may go beyond the people. Wildlife strikes can also disrupt the flow of goods, especially along major transit corridors like I-40, he said.
From a conservation standpoint, it’s not feasible to just block the animals’ access to roads and hope they’re okay, Hillard said. Fragmenting animal populations with impassable roads can prevent the exchange of genetic information, he said, which is essential for robust populations.
“Reducing mortality is important, but allowing our wildlife access to natural resources, in general, is where the big win lies in the long run,” he said.
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As climate change continues to alter animal habitats, the ability to move will become increasingly important for animals, Hunter said.
“Each species has a different habitat requirement, so if we can reconnect that fragmented landscape, that will give wildlife an opportunity to track the climate,” he said. “You have to make these roads more permeable for wildlife. It’s really essential to the future of the creatures that people here in southern Appalachia love.”
Christian Smith is the general assignment reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times. Questions or comments? Contact him at [email protected] or 828-274-2222.