Update on I-40 safe passage project for wildlife in the Smokies

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The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project needs funding, will make recommendations to TN and NC

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — An effort to protect wildlife near the Smokies is gaining momentum, with leaders saying they’ll soon be making recommendations to Tennessee and North Carolina transportation departments.

The Safe Passage Coalition aims to create bridges and overpasses for wildlife crossing major roadways, like Interstate 40. National Parks Conservation Association senior program manager Jeff Hunter spoke about the project’s progress on Wednesday, which also happened to be World Wildlife Day.

Hunter said that for the last four years, there’s been a collaborative effort involving federal, state, tribal, and non-governmental organizations, about 20 groups total that are looking at a 28-mile stretch of I-40 that’s just outside of the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

He went on to say that the particular stretch of I-40 is just east of Newport to the Maggie Valley exit. This means the area the coalition is targeting covers 8 miles of Tennessee’s portion of I-40 and 20 miles of North Carolina’s portion of I-40.

(Map via National Parks Conservation Association)

Hunter said they had just concluded two years of research for that corridor and were next looking to provide recommendations to both Tennessee’s TDOT and North Carolina’s NCDOT in order to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions.

Currently, the Safe Passage Coalition doesn’t yet have any bridges or tunnels sited but that is the goal.

“A big, hairy audacious goal, shall we say, we need to follow the science,” Hunter said Wednesday. “So we’ll be making those recommendations in the third quarter of this year, however since we started our research project, North Carolina DOT has indicated they’re going to be replacing a road bridge at the Harmon Den exit and this is a very important area for wildlife.”

Also, Hunter said there’s currently no federal or state dollars for wildlife mitigation at that location so from that — The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project was born.

When will drivers see this safe passage for wildlife?

Most likely in a few years, at current projections.

“We would need to figure out where to put this structure and again the science is going to inform that, and then funding has to be acquired to make it happen, so it’s a long process,” Hunter said. “But it’s something that we’re aspiring to, to try and make the world just a little bit better for wildlife and people in this part of the world.”

How can people get involved or help?

Donations are currently being accepted on the coalition’s site for the project.

Visit their website for more information about the project and to donate to the fund.

The Safe Passage Coalition is made up of the Conservation Fund, Wildlands Network, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, National Parks Conservation Association, Defenders of Wildlife and the Great Smoky Mountains Association. The coalition is in the process of collecting data on how to best implement the project and working to raise project funding.

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