Development and deforestation are increasing in North Carolina, meaning wildlife habitat loss and fragmentation are also on the rise. This has a huge impact on wildlife, particularly species that traverse the landscape to fulfill biological needs. 

Take the elk noted for his unusual antlers that left his herd in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a solo journey in early fall. The meandering beast – previously tagged with a GPS tracker – traveled the landscape through three states, starting in Maggie Valley. 

He visited Horse Shoe, North Carolina, near DuPont State Forest then made his way to South Carolina where the elk was spotted crossing a large culvert that Duke Energy uses as a service road under Interstate 40. He then headed to Tennessee before returning to North Carolina. A critical network of wildlife connections and corridors made his journey and survival possible.  

The cost of vehicle-wildlife collisions

Transportation networks span millions of miles, dividing larger, connected areas of habitat into smaller pieces. This can create challenges for wildlife on the move, sometimes resulting in injury or death.

Vehicle-wildlife collisions kill more than a million animals each day and cost tens of millions of dollars in damages and injuries, including the loss of human life. As human populations continue to grow, so does the demand for homes, businesses and transportation networks. This creates a patchwork landscape that wildlife must navigate to survive.

Effects of vehicles and roads on animal behavior

Roads fragment habitat, sometimes creating physical barriers for animals that may influence where, and at what time, the animals cross. Other variables include road width, traffic level and noise, the density of roadside vegetation and traffic lane separation barriers.

“Wildlife mortality on roads is likely underestimated due to the quick work of scavengers and the extent of destruction to smaller animals such as frogs and salamanders,” said Liz Rutledge,  Ph.D., NCWF Director of Wildlife Resources. “Another factor is that injured animals who succumb to their injuries may do so out of view from the roadway.” 

While white-tailed deer may be the first species people think of, bees and butterflies, salamanders, snakes and turtles, birds, opossums and raccoons, and black bears and elk are all susceptible to collisions with vehicles. 

With approximately 80,000 miles of state-maintained highways in North Carolina combined with projected human population growth, effective mitigation strategies are imperative for wildlife conservation and diversity.

Each species has resource needs that can change daily, seasonally, or throughout the year. Animal population growth depends on the amount of available, suitable habitat. Even the loss of small patches of land can influence a species’ ability to fulfill its biological needs and survive. Changing climate temperatures and seasonal weather patterns also may impact habitat composition through shifts in elevation or range. 

Habitat and connectivity: The key to reducing wildlife mortality

Maintaining natural areas for wildlife through conservation easements or other land acquisition programs is essential. This is especially true for areas that support unique flora and fauna or threatened or endangered species. Large tracts of contiguous, or adjoining, land with high potential for habitat restoration or improvement can be beneficial, especially when inventoried to determine what species are present.

Connecting these natural areas or unique habitats through corridor systems helps reconnect land for wildlife to travel freely, unobstructed by roads and vehicles, and reduces mortality risk. Corridor systems promote safe wildlife movement from one location to another. Linking sites that supply the necessary resources for wildlife can also help reduce or prevent genetic isolation.

One of the most cost-effective ways to prevent vehicle-wildlife collisions is to incorporate wildlife crossing structures over or under roads in transportation planning. Proactively including wildlife mitigation measures early in the planning process and during ramp or bridge repairs ensures that wildlife can continue to flourish.

New construction is inevitable, but surveys can be used to identify which species are most likely to cross the roads. Monitoring through cameras, GPS tracking or personal observation can identify where and when wildlife is most likely to cross. Crossing structures such as naturally occurring land bridges, man-made bridges, free-flowing water and various culverts can reduce mortality hotspots. Fencing to funnel wildlife to these structures is also critical. 

Supporting habitat protection and connectivity

NCWF is a partner in the Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Connectivity Collaborative; a group of biologists, wildlife managers, transportation planners, and wildlife advocates representing state and federal agencies and conservation organizations.

The Collaborative develops practical and feasible solutions to reduce wildlife mortality on roads in western North Carolina. Recent recommendations to the NC Department of Transportation (NCDOT) included conceptual plans to upgrade current highway infrastructure with wildlife in mind. 

Additionally, NCWF:

  • Maintains a lease agreement on property that benefits elk.
  • Assists with land acquisition and connectivity projects.
  • Advocates for funding to support wildlife crossings to connect habitat.
  • Supports national transportation policy to provide increased funding for wildlife mitigation on roadways.
  • Plants native trees, shrubs and pollinator-friendly plants to restore and enhance habitats in urban and residential areas, and larger areas on right-of-ways and farmlands

Habitat and wildlife volunteer projects on the Albemarle Peninsula

In eastern North Carolina, NCWF partnered with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) and NCDOT to maintain highway underpasses for wildlife use. NCWF, NCWRC, and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington use camera traps to evaluate when and how wildlife are using the highway underpasses. 

“We started the project to help support safe and productive wildlife underpasses so all species – from red wolves and bears to bobcats and turtles – can cross safely under I-64,” said Tara Moore, NCWF Director of Conservation Partnerships.

The three wildlife underpasses on I-64, along with more than 6 miles of fencing, provide opportunities for volunteers who help maintain them. The volunteers report any fence maintenance needs and remove overgrown vegetation to ensure the crossings remain open for wildlife. They also assist with wildlife camera traps by changing the memory cards, checking batteries, and clearing vegetation that may block the cameras 

Want to volunteer? Contact NCWF Director of Conservation Partnerships, Tara Moore, at tara@ncwf.org.  

Other ways to make a difference for wildlife

  1. Support NCWF or other groups and agencies that advocate for wildlife and their habitat.  
  2. Stay up-to-date on environmental policy. Contact your local representatives and ask them for adequate funding to support wildlife, connectivity, crossing structures and transportation planning.
  3. Familiarize yourself with the species on your property and make it a priority to be a  responsible steward and manage your land with the goal of improving wildlife habitat.
  4. Look for wildlife crossing signs when traveling and slow down in areas where wildlife is known to cross.