Safe Passage for Wildlife

Bear expert Mike Pelton giving a talk to Headwaters Master Naturalists on December 6, 2021.

On December 6th, bear expert Mike Pelton presented photos, maps and information to a group of about 12 Headwaters Master Naturalists about improving wildlife corridors across roads in Virginia. With the fragmenting of undeveloped lands, wildlife increasingly encounters roads and traffic as they move through the landscape.

Mike’s 50-year career has focused on researching bears, going back to the black bear research project he initiated in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in 1968, which continues to this day. He has also coordinated the Southern Appalachian Black Bear Study Group. He founded the International Association for Bear Research and Management, and he is an Emeritus Professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Tennessee. So, this guy knows what he is talking about—especially when the topic is bears!

While there are only two current projects aimed at modifying wildlife movement patterns that cross roads here in Virginia, Mike thinks that will increase in the near future as Virginia gets a large bump of infrastructure development money from the government. Other countries in Europe and Canada are far ahead of the USA in enacting safe passage for animals. And within the USA, Virginia is slow to get started. So, we have a lot of room to grow. Virginia is in the top ten states for deer-vehicle collisions. 60,000 deer are hit by cars a year in Virginia.

The two main ways that safe passage is facilitated is by adding culverts under, or bridges over, major roads. Fencing helps funnel wildlife to use the strategically placed crossings. The Interstate 64 culvert crossing that was added in recent years on Afton Mountain has demonstrated a 92% reduction in deer collisions. Prior to the project Afton experienced nine deer collisions per mile per year. These projects are considered cost-effective if they decrease one deer collision per mile per year. These will do much more than that.

Across the country, the motivator for building these bridges and culverts is usually charismatic megafauna like elk, bear, bison, and mule deer. But they benefit animals of all sizes.

Interstate 81 traffic has tripled in the past 25 years and is expected to double again by 2030. Mike is interested in helping to figure out how to connect wildlife corridors between the Allegheny Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains, which will have to cross I-81 somehow. Currently the most likely spot for a successful project to connect these two regions is at Buchanan’s Buffalo Creek area.

Headwaters Master Naturalists are lucky to have such a knowledgeable expert among us and available to us. Bears everywhere are lucky to have Mike Pelton on their side. We all can be encouraged that long-needed wildlife corridors are starting to get the attention they deserve in Virginia.

Kate Guenther, Cohort I, December 2021

Photos by Kate!