On the outskirts of Glacier National Park, dozens of new wildlife crossings allow animals to traverse areas that once posed serious risks to human and critter alike. And it’s just the beginning.
By Michael Jamison
A summer haze shimmers over blacktop, swirling amid the sizzling hiss of tire on tarmac. Piercing glints of sun—strings of cars and trucks and rumbling Harleys—flash fast and bright before vanishing around the bend.
On one side of the road, upland forests step into dry August foothills. On the other, cattail rushes shade pools of cool wetland. Trapped between these habitats the wide-eyed deer balk, blocked by sun-scorched metal guardrails, buffeted by the wind, set upon from either side—to step into this fray is as much a leap of faith as a calculated risk.
That age-old riddle, it seems, had posed the wrong question. The issue is not why the chicken crossed the road, but how. Or, to be even more precise, how the deer, the bear, the coyote, the elk, and the otter managed to cross the road.
And the answer, until very recently, was seldom, fearfully, and at great risk. But now there is a new answer to how the critters cross the road. Now they cross over and under, through thickets and brambles and in quiet shade along a whisper of clear water. Now, on U.S. Highway 93 North, they cross safely, and slowly, and surely unseen.
The designers of this stretch of road, a ribbon of blacktop drawn tight through the heart of Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation, say the number of miles and the number of crossings make this the most extensive wildlife-mitigation project of its kind in North America. Completed in 2010, it features 41 fish and wildlife crossing structures across 56 miles—overpasses and underpasses, culverts and bridges linking rivers and streams and ancient migration paths—all lined with more than 8 miles of exclusion fencing to funnel animals in the right direction. To the east, icy Mission Mountain peaks rise like white-haired elders, overlooking the valley below. To the west, prairies and pothole lakes are strung with miles of lowland marsh and fen. These diverse habitats are why the critters cross; the highway’s unique design helps them stay alive in the process.
“People subsisted and survived here for centuries thanks to the wildlife and the natural resources,” says Dale Becker, wildlife program manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “When you’re tied to the environment that closely, to the point of basic survival, then your entire culture becomes deeply entwined with the land.”
“Protecting our wildlife,” he says, “is really another way of protecting our culture. The road is just a road, but the Crown of the Continent is our home.”
The Crown of The Continent ecosystem sprawls across 18 million Rocky Mountain acres at the transboundary intersection of Montana, British Columbia, and Alberta, crossing four degrees of latitude and the ancestral homelands of the Blackfeet, Kainai, Kootenai, Ktunaxa, Pend d’Oreille, Piikani, Salish and Siksiska peoples.
The Crown also is home to wolves and wolverines, elk, and moose and mountain lions—the greatest assemblage of mid- to large-size carnivores and prey species found anywhere in the Rocky Mountains and the largest population of grizzly bears in the Lower 48. There are 300 bird species here, 1,200 plant species, and 160,000 people, many of whom live along the blacktop bustle of U.S. Highway 93.
At the geographic and cultural center of the Crown sits Glacier National Park and its neighbor to the north, Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada. Together, they form Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the core of a transboundary wilderness complex totaling nearly 3 million acres. The park’s most iconic species roam this rugged backcountry through tremendous home ranges; a male grizzly’s territory tracks some 300 square miles. As our climate changes, their survival depends increasingly upon protected corridors connecting parks to surrounding wildlands.
“When we started this project, most people just saw a road,” says Whisper Camel-Means, wildlife biologist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “We needed a paradigm shift. We needed them to see it for what it really was—a barrier to wildlife connectivity and a disruption to social connectivity.”
“Pray for me—I drive Highway 93.” For years, merchants along this scenic route did a bang-up business with those bumper stickers. The road was notoriously dangerous—narrow and fast, with small shoulders and big herds of deer. It was, in a word, deadly.
“Everyone has lost someone,” Becker says, and many of those fatal accidents involved collisions between animals and vehicles.
So it was no surprise, he said, when the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) showed up with a plan to fix it. They wanted to widen the road, straighten it, engineer it until it was better, safer, faster. But that is not the speed at which residents of the Flathead Indian Reservation move. And as a sovereign nation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes held a powerful trump card in the ensuing debate over how best to get from here to there.
“Our big concern was wildlife connectivity and avoiding habitat fragmentation,” Becker says. The tribal elders weighed in with an ancient world-view in which everything is connected and part of a greater whole. The agency biologists stepped in with a modern version of precisely that same story, emphasizing the integrity of the ecological web.
“It was an easy and very natural fit,” Becker says, “between the elders and the scientists.”
Ultimately, the highway engineers were steered into a design built around “spirit of place,” a notion that any vision for the road should “encompass a broader environmental continuum that includes the surrounding mountains, plains, hills, forest, valley, and sky, and the paths of waters, glaciers, winds, plants, animals, and native peoples.”
“What it implies to me,” says Pat Basting, biologist with MDT, “is a whole new way of thinking—that roads need to be built not only in the context of the landscape, but also in the context of the beliefs and cultures of the people who live on that landscape.”
Fortunately, there were some old examples of that new thinking close at hand, right up the road in Glacier National Park.
Nearly 90 years ago, in the heat of August 1924, three men met near the saddle of Glacier National Park’s scenic Logan Pass to settle an argument that would define once and for all the look of America’s national parks.
The veteran engineer, George Goodwin, proposed a route to the pass that tracked up 15 switchbacks, cutting a zigzag zipper into the McDonald Creek basin.
The greenhorn landscape architect, Tom Vint, was dismayed, said it would “look like miners had been there,” and pleaded for a lighter touch. Put in one switchback, Vint pleaded, and then pin the rest of Going-to-the-Sun Road to the cliffs along Glacier’s soaring Garden Wall.
Too expensive, Goodwin countered. Too difficult.
The third man there at the pass was Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service (and one of NPCA’s founders). The day was hot, and he’d heard enough. As official park history tells it, “as the argument continued, Mather looked at Goodwin, looked at Vint, glanced at their horses, turned and stormed off toward another appointment.”
The men saddled up but couldn’t catch the boss. Two days later, Mather made his decision: A park as fine as Glacier should not be marred by an unsightly road.
It was a stunning precedent—the first time the landscape architect’s aesthetic had trumped the engineer’s practicality—and it ultimately set the standard for all the scenic national park roads that followed, including iconic routes such as the Blue Ridge Parkway.
In 1924, we didn’t build for beauty, at least, not until Glacier National Park was factored into the equation. In 2010, we didn’t build for wildlife, at least, not until we found a place as fine as the Crown of the Continent. Twice the engineers said it couldn’t be done, and twice the people of the Crown proved them wrong.
Nearly a century after Mather made his decision, the biologists, elders, and road engineers were improving on that history, setting an important new precedent, partnering to build a road that was easy not only on the eye but also on the critters—a road that connected an entire ecosystem. And they gave their project a motto, which became a touchstone throughout construction: “The road,” they declared, “is a visitor.”
The first step, according to Camel-Means, was to figure out how animals were using the old two-lane route. Where did the bears cross? Which of the many culverts—those corrugated metal pipes buried beneath the blacktop—still allowed fish passage up and down the small streams? And what about those lumbering painted turtles, inching along between the lanes from pond to pond?
They turned to local knowledge about where the critters crossed, then tracked wildlife movements up and down the road. They mapped roadkill locations and cross-referenced with habitat types, land use, ownership, and topography. They counted everything—cars and deer poop and even the animal prints left in the “sandtracking beds” built at road’s edge. They caught critters on video and still cameras and captured location data from animals sporting GPS tracking collars. They caught fish, tagged them, then followed them through streams beneath the highway. They measured turtle migration (longest: 2,625 yards) and measured mortality rates for the turtles that braved the road (50 percent). They studied wildlife population dynamics, behavior, demographics, and even genetic flow across the Crown of the Continent. And then they factored in precipitation, temperature, annual weather, and climate fluctuations, working to pin down which species crossed which stretch of road during which season and why.
“It was fairly exhaustive,” Becker said of the process. “I think by then we recognized that what we were doing was pretty unprecedented in terms of landscape connectivity, and we wanted to create a model that could be studied and replicated.”
All agreed this was fast becoming a benchmark case-study for testing how to build wildlife crossings across a busy, multiple-use landscape. And according to Marcel Huijser, research ecologist at the Western Transportation Institute, that’s important not only because wildlife need safe passage between natural areas such as parks but because more than 1 million motorists collide with large mammals every year in this country, resulting in 200 human deaths, 29,000 injuries, and more than $1 billion in vehicular damage.
“It’s just so rare to see a project like this at the landscape level,” Basting said. “It really is unprecedented. Everyone wants to know what we’re learning.”
A few miles farther north on Highway 93, NPCA’s Glacier Field Office sits perched on the doorstep of Glacier National Park, at a junction of international roadways that ring Waterton-Glacier like an asphalt moat. To better connect the parks with surrounding wildlands, NPCA has partnered with the University of Montana to map known wildlife corridors on those roads. The plan, according to Glacier Field Representative Sarah Lundstrum, is to compare those migration routes with maps of existing highway culverts (or drainage pipes), then find out when those corrugated pipes are scheduled to be repaired or replaced.
“When it’s time to replace a culvert in a wildlife corridor,” Lundstrum says, “we’ll be able to upgrade it to an animal-friendly crossing structure with minimal added cost. We’re just building on what they’ve learned on the Flathead Reservation.”
What they’ve learned, Basting says, is that amphibians don’t like long, dry passages, and they don’t like dramatic temperature changes. Mountain lions don’t like artificial light. Male bears are more likely to cross than females. Whitetail deer are more accepting of crossing structures than are mule deer. Predators, with their eyes up front, like small underpasses that feel like dens. Prey, with eyes set wide, like a little more open space. And grizzly bears, for whatever reason, prefer overpasses to underpasses.
To meet all those needs, Basting said, designers have turned to a whole host of crossing structures, depending on habitat and species. Some underpasses are big and square and cavernous, while some appear to be little more than oversized drainage pipes. Inside all, though, the heat and fury of the highway give way to birdsong and cool breezes, the road muffled by many feet of earth overhead. Cattails and cottonwood shade the entrances, mixing with serviceberry, chokecherry, and willow; amid the foliage, prints of dozens of species track the sandy soil. Fish move through cold shallows, while bear and deer tread wide, dry paths under the road. Along the walls of the underpasses biologists have stacked a jumble of sticks and branches—habitat for small mammals making the crossing. And at intervals are small sheets of plywood, providing cover for snakes and frogs, lizards and long-toed salamanders.
“We were thinking about bear and deer when we built the project,” Becker said, “but the real surprises have been smaller.”
The skunk family, for instance, and the playful otters. The beaver dragging a stick back to his lodge on the other side. The owls and bats and small-footed shrews. Cameras, triggered by heat and motion, have captured some wonderful surprises. Huijser’s favorites are the images of a teenage black bear darting for the safety of a small underpass, tongue lolling and wide-eyed, with a big grumpy boar hot on his tail.
“We’ve actually seen bobcats and coyotes scent-marking the underpasses,” Huijser said. “It appears they’re laying claim to the site, as if a safe crossing is a valued possession.”
And indeed it is. Almost immediately upon its completion, the number of animals killed along this road dropped by more than 40 percent—and every animal caught on camera, Becker says, is an animal still alive. To Becker, each image is powerful evidence of success, and hope for a culture intimately connected with the wild.
“You can measure success in many ways,” Basting said, “but at the end of the day, when you look at the tracks passing through, well, I believe we’ve done some good here.”