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Animal Highway

Bugs meeting cars isn't a new thing. I have heard of drivers meeting up with mass migrations of tarantulas and grasshoppers, too.

By Novella Carpenter

Ah, another new month! I love April, it is a time of spring rain, some sunshine and wildflowers! Billy just got back from the spring wildflower show in Death Valley. He said there were so many flowers--many of them blooming for the first time in years--that there were entire hillsides aglow with vivid color. Why wasn't I there? Had to take care of the chicks, all 22 of them need constant attention, or at least food and water every four hours or so. But don't let me get started about the chickens. What I'm saying is: baby animals, bright days; I love spring.

April is also the month that focuses on the earth. Kicking off with Fossil Fools Day on the first and continuing on with Earth Day, April is a month of considering what we can do to help out good old Mama Earth. As such, I'll be writing about Earth-friendly cars and projects this entire month.

One of the things that struck Bill while on his road trip was the number of migrating butterflies. "What color were they?" I asked. "I can't remember," he said, hunched over the hood of our Mercedes, "but they were yellow on the inside when they hit the windshield." Er, thanks Bill, very helpful. Indeed, I looked at the window and it was positively coated in bug guts. Yuck.

Bugs meeting cars isn't a new thing. I have heard of drivers meeting up with mass migrations of tarantulas and grasshoppers, too. It isn't just insects, either. According to an article last year in National Geographic, millions of animals are killed on U.S. roads annually, including the endangered ocelot, whose numbers have been severely reduced by cars, and Alaska's moose, whose No. 1 predator is the car.

Later that night, I went to a reading featuring wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer, author of Walking the Big Wild. Karsten walked 2,200 miles, from Yellowstone to the Yukon territory, in order to understand how wildlife migrates through this almost contiguous patch of wilderness, called the Y2Y corridor (www.y2y.net).

What he found was: tons of animals! Of the 188 days he walked, he encountered some form of wildlife--bear, moose, wolves, elk, mountain lions, eagles--on 160 of those days. The idea behind corridors is that large mammals migrate long distances, and this is what keeps their gene pool diverse and strong enough to stave off various diseases and infections.

In many wilderness areas, there are roads for cars, though, and animals must cross these--at their peril--in order to complete their migration. One of the ways this logistical problem can be solved is a thing called an animal overpass, or an ecopassage.

Heuer showed slides of the Banff National Park overpass, which creates a wildlife corridor over the Trans-Canada Highway. The cars go through a tunnel; above ground is a 164-foot-wide path that features trees and shrubs similar to the surrounding environment. It took a few years before the animals figured out where the overpass was, but today cameras mounted in the pass take photos regularly of grizzlies, elk, moose, wolves and deer.

Meanwhile, the National Park also built underpasses for animals more used to dark forest environments, like cougars and black bears. The program has been an unqualified success and a model for other places where car-meets-animal problems occur too often.

In southwest Florida, cars were threatening to kill the last of the panthers, whose habitat was bisected by I-75, a.k.a. Alligator Alley. Studies showed that 36 wildlife underpasses and bridges were needed to protect the creatures, and residents of the state overwhelming passed an initiative to create these wildlife corridors. One of the bridges, a 53-foot-wide overpass, crosses a six-lane highway and features oaks, pines and palm trees that mimic the natural landscape. A rousing success, the corridors in Florida reduced road kill of panthers, bear, deer and bobcats by almost 100 percent. There is a way that cars and animals can get along after all.

Novella can be reached at [email protected]

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From the April 6-13, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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