Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Why did the deer cross the road?
More importantly, did he make it safely to the other side?
To help reduce accidents and connect animal habitat, the New Mexico Departments of Transportation and Game and Fisheries released a draft Wildlife Corridor Action Plan.
Matt Haverland, the Department of Transportation’s wildlife coordinator, said the report is a deep dive into areas with disrupted migration corridors and high rates of wildlife-vehicle collisions.
“It’s pretty crucial that we find ways to address this issue for the safety of the traveling public and the safety of wildlife,” Haverland said.
The 700-page report covers mule deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, black bear and cougar.
But the plan also considers smaller wildlife like rabbits, foxes, Gila monsters, snakes, and javelins.
Car crashes with deer and elk have topped state collision hotspots in northern and southern New Mexico for the past two decades.
On average, 634 incidents involved deer each year and 169 involved elk.
“New Mexico has been collecting all forms of crash data for a few decades now, from state police, local municipalities or sheriff’s departments,” Haverland said. “What we’ve done is take that data and narrow it down to wildlife strikes.”
US 70 southwest of Ruidoso was the top wildlife-vehicle collision hotspot based on the number of crashes per mile.
Accidents come at a high cost — up to $11 million in property damage and injuries statewide in 2019.
Dollar values attributed to injured or killed animals have also soared into the millions.
The corridors described in the report connect distinct animal populations and are used by herds to find seasonal or alternate food, water, mates and habitat.
Game and Fish uses GPS and radio collars to track the movements of big game herds and identify key corridors, spokeswoman Tristanna Bickford said.
“Our biologists determine the best number of animals to put collars on based on the likelihood of them staying together in a group or splitting up,” Bickford said. “We regularly take deer, elk and pronghorn.”
Game and fish biologists are currently using this method to track and map the seasonal migration patterns of dozens of pronghorns east of Chama.
Michael Dax, western program director for the Wildlands Network, said the data can help the state see where fencing needs have changed or where land should be closed to the public during calving or migration seasons.
“A lot of conservation stops at national or international borders,” he said. “Of course, these are boundaries that wildlife don’t see, so we have to work at a large scale of the landscape.”
The Wildlands team tracked the movements of animals of 30 different species for two years with trail cameras in southwestern New Mexico, where Interstate 10 passes through Arizona’s Peloncillo Mountains.
“In the long term, this area will be critical for continental connectivity for jaguars and Mexican wolves, and for reconnecting bighorn sheep habitat,” Dax said.
Safe Passage Projects
Game and Fish and NMDOT have completed 10 wildlife safe passage projects over the past 20 years, primarily in northern and central New Mexico.
The report lists 11 new priority projects to address collision hotspots and wildlife corridors:
• US 550 north of Cuba
• US 180/NM 90 Silver City
• US 70/NM 48 noisy
• the I-25 Glorieta pass
• US 70 Bent Sacramento Mountains
• US 64/US 84 Tierra Amarilla to Chama and US 84 from Chama to the Colorado line
• US 285 Rio Grande del Norte National Monument north of Tres Piedras
• I-25, US 64, NM 505 and NM 445 south of Raton to Maxwell
• I-10 Peloncillo Mountains/Steins
• I-25/US 550 Sandia-Jemez Mountains/Bernalillo
• NM 38 Questa at Red River
All of the recommended projects include fencing to keep animals off highways and funnel them into crossing structures.
“A lot of our existing projects also have wildlife detection systems,” Bickford said. “These systems can detect the presence of an animal based on body heat and movement, and then there’s a flashing light to alert motorists that there’s wildlife in the area.”
Existing road infrastructure and the regional landscape influenced the crossings chosen for each project.
“Different species are also more likely to use certain structures more than others,” Haverland said. “Bighorn sheep are more likely to use overpasses than culverts. Even within species, as with mule deer, those residing in urban areas may use a smaller culvert than mule deer in a more rural area.
The proposed projects have prices ranging from $17 million to $50 million.
Bryan Bird, Southwest Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife, said now is the time for New Mexico to take advantage of federal and state funds for wildlife crossings.
Defenders of Wildlife and Wildlands Network helped craft the 2019 state law that directed agencies to create the action plan.
“Since humans have built infrastructure, including highways and urbanization, animal habitat has been sliced and diced into islands of good habitat,” Bird said. “It is important for us to facilitate the movement of wildlife and to ensure that our human progress does not impede this.
Agencies could receive state and federal allocations to fund crossings.
The recently passed federal infrastructure program also includes $350 million in competitive grants for projects to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions.
States, tribes and municipalities can apply for grants.
Game and Fish also requested a special appropriation of $9 million from the Legislative Assembly.
That money could be used to leverage project funds for the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, a federal bill awaiting a congressional hearing.
The New Mexico report also offers cheaper short-term solutions, like smaller fence projects and warning signs.
“While expensive, these projects pay off, from a driver and outdoor recreation economics perspective,” Dax said. “Hunting and wildlife viewing are huge parts of our economy.”
State agencies contracted with Daniel B. Stephens and Associates to create the plan.
Experts from New Mexico universities and natural resources departments from tribes and pueblos provided data.
After a two-month public comment period, the group will publish the final plan.
“The report included the impacts of climate change, which was unique, and the economic benefits of protecting wildlife movements in the state,” Bird said. “I don’t think many other states have looked so closely at wildlife movement needs within their borders.”
Theresa Davis is a member of the Report for America body that covers water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.