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Road Ecology in the Great Smoky Mountains

Over the last decade, scientists have identified roads as a leading cause of habitat fragmentation and loss of connectivity for wildlife populations in North America. An area where this threat is especially evident in the eastern United States is the Pigeon River Gorge.

Dr. Liz Hillard examines a black bear carcass struck by traffic along Interstate 40.

Here, Interstate 40 winds through the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, cutting off the tremendous biodiversity of Great Smoky Mountains National Park from extensive national forest lands to the northeast. As the most biodiverse park in the National Park System, Great Smoky Mountains hosts an incredible array of plants and animals ranging from salamanders to bobcats to snakes. This region is also home to abundant large-bodied wildlife species such as elk, black bear and white-tailed deer.

The ecological importance of the region—as well as the severity of vehicle collisions with elk, deer and bears—present a significant opportunity to mitigate the highway impacts on wildlife through the study of road ecology.

Wildlands Network and other conservationists are identifying ways to alleviate roadway barrier effects, restore connectivity and protect wildlife and human safety in the Pigeon River Gorge.

In 2018, our Chief Scientist Dr. Ron Sutherland launched a wildlife-roads research project in the Pigeon River Gorge, working closely with National Parks Conservation Association with support from other state, federal and NGO partners. Our multifaceted, on-the-ground approach focuses on a 28-mile section of I-40 where we seek to:

  1. monitor animal activity to evaluate whether the existing set of bridges and culverts under I-40 are allowing wildlife to safely cross;
  2. study forested areas along the roadside to detect areas of relatively high wildlife activity;
  3. identify locations with high incidences of roadkill through weekly driving surveys and sharing information with state departments of transportation and other agency partners;
  4. evaluate elk movement and predict elk road crossing behavior using locations from 13 GPS-collared elk and subsequent geospatial analyses.
The Pigeon River Gorge study area spans 28 miles of Interstate 40 between North Carolina and Tennessee. Source: Wildlands Network

Our research will provide a framework that identifies areas where mitigation strategies such as road crossing structures could be best implemented to reduce wildlife vehicle collisions and increase wildlife habitat connectivity. As Wildlands Network continues to work towards contiguous, continental-scale corridors for wildlife, the Pigeon River Gorge represents a key piece of the puzzle for the Eastern Wildway.

“This is one of the most important projects in the eastern United States to improve safety for wildlife and humans on roads.” 

Dr. Liz Hillard, Wildlands Network Wildlife Scientist

In the News

Wildlands Network’s efforts on this project are led by our Wildlife Scientist Dr. Liz Hillard. Based in Asheville, North Carolina, Dr. Hillard’s research supports habitat connectivity and conservation efforts throughout the Southern Appalachian region. See more about her latest work in the Pigeon River Gorge:

Photo at top of page: A GPS-collared elk looks out from the top of Max Patch Mountain, a major landmark along the Appalachian Trail near the North Carolina-Tennessee border. In this region, Interstate 40 cuts through the landscape disconnecting the area surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park to public lands like Max Patch (Pisgah National Forest) to the northeast.