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TrekWest Blog 31: Breaching Another Barrier

Wildlife Crossings on Highway 89, Southern Utah

“This blog invites you to pull up a Western Map and follow along….”

Certain obstacles simply must be overcome if we are to protect a Western Wildway, a Spine of the Continent Conservation Corridor.  This is true also for the Eastern (Appalachian/Atlantic), Pacific, Boreal, Great Plains, Gulf of Mexico and any other continental wildways we hope to restore.  Most often, these major obstacles will be roads.

Let’s take a closer look, now would be a good time to pull out or pull up a map of the West!  So far on TrekWest, we’ve noted as major barriers to wildlife movement: Route 2 across northern Mexico, the US/Mexico border wall, Interstates 10 and 17 in Arizona, the Central Arizona Project aqueduct, Oracle Road north of Tucson, and Route 260 across northern Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. We’ve called for removing or modifying the border wall in wildlife corridors, particularly in Sky Island ranges that extend to or across the border, including the Huachucas, Patagonias, and Peloncillos.

We’ve also urged installation of safe wildlife crossings on all busy roads severing wildlife linkages, such as on I-10 at Steins Pass, NM (proposed wildlife bridge) and across North Oracle Road between southern AZ’s Catalinas and Tortolitas (wildlife bridge and tunnel planned for construction beginning this year).  We’ve visited successful wildlife crossing structures along Rte. 260 transecting the Mogollon Rim.  Now we celebrate new installation of wildlife crossings on Highway 89, running east-west across southern Utah, much of it through otherwise big and wild Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The following is a huge problem that could be an even bigger success story with huge results. Highway 89 has become a killing zone fragmenting the Paunsaugunt wildlife corridor.  It is especially fatal to the famous Paunsaugunt mule deer herd (Michael Mauro image of this species pictured left)  that twice annually moves across the valley that the highway now cuts through.  These thousands of mule deer spend summers up on Paunsaugunt Plateau but winter southward on Buckskin Mountain, in northern Arizona.  With increasing traffic (paradoxically, in part because the Monument has become such a popular tourist draw and economic engine), road-kill has become tragically common on 89.  An estimated annual cost of $440,000 in losses from wildlife/vehicle collisions was enough to convince the Utah Department of Transportation, Bureau of Land Management, Western Governors Association, Utah and Arizona wildlife agencies and sporting groups and wildlands groups to pool resources and install or retrofit seven underpasses in the deadliest 12 miles and erect an eight-foot-high fence to funnel the deer to these safe crossings.

Of course, the hope – supported by more and more safe crossings in many western states and provinces, and in Florida and Vermont, and in western Europe – is that other animals, too, will be directed by the fence to the tunnels and will use them.  The Highway 89 wildlife crossing project is slated for completion later this year, but a convergence of proponents made May 9 the day for an on-site press conference with representatives from the many participating groups.

As transportation officials explained to reporters the benefits of these wildlife crossings – most important, saved lives, wild and human, but also a pay-back period of less than a decade – Jim Catlin, my wife Denise and I tried to read the tracks of animals who had already found the safe passages.  We also added our words of support, on behalf of Wild Utah Project and TrekWest.  Jim dropped Denise and me off safely north of the dangerous road, to backpack north on the Hayduke Trail, from Paria town site, through Bryce Canyon National Park. I believe Ed Abbey would rest a little easier knowing that deer and other wildlife can now move more safely along the route of his legendary personification of the freedom and wildness of the West.

For the Wild,

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