KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A report released this summer is shedding light on the effects of driver activity along Interstate 40 on wildlife in the Smokies near the Tennessee-North Carolina border. The report draws information from a study that was conducted by a team of researchers and scientists over a three-year period.

The study is meant to offer a framework that identifies areas along the corridor where wildlife crossing structures could best be implemented. The goal is to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and increase wildlife habitat connectivity in the area.

Jeff Hunter, the Southern Appalachian Director for the National Parks Conservation Association spoke about the study.

“From 2019 to 2021 the organization I work for, the National Parks Conservation Association and our partners at Wildlands Network conducted intensive studies on a 28-mile corridor on Interstate 40,” began Jeff Hunter. “That’s eight miles in Tennessee from where the Foothills Parkway ties into the highway to the state line, and then from the North Carolina-Tennessee state line to Maggie Valley.”

Hunter said they specifically looked into how larger wildlife such as the bear, white-tailed deer and elk populations are affected in wildlife-vehicle crashes. They did this using a combination of motion-detection cameras, GPS elk-collar tracking and traffic data. Researchers then examined locations where animals cross the most, which species are the most active, what parts of the roadway are permeable and determined where elk approach and cross the roadway.

Hunter said just looking at one of the species tracked in the study, there were more than 100 bears hit and killed over the three-year period for the study.

After reviewing results experts argue these wild animals are in need of safer areas to cross the interstate that runs through the Smokies, otherwise portions of I-40 will become hard barriers for wildlife.

“As traffic volumes grow you can find that being a hard barrier where wildlife simply can’t cross from the Smokies side of the park to the other side of the park and with climate change and our warming climate, wildlife needs to move,” said Hunter. “If the day comes when we don’t see any dead animals on the road, on the side of the road because nothing it trying to cross, that’s a bigger problem.”

They encourage the Departments of Transportation in both North Carolina and Tennessee to consider these when replacing aging highway structures in the future.

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“It’s subject to feasibility studies by engineers,” said Hunter, adding that the highway was built in the late 1960s. “These structures have life spans, they’re going to age out at some point in time and a lot of our recommendations are, let’s replace that structure when it ages out with a bigger structure.”

The results have moved the Safe Passage Coalition to recommend more than 20 detailed mitigation recommendations for improvements to existing structures or the creation of new structures throughout the Pigeon River Gorge.

Based on the research findings, the study also gives top-priority locations in both states where bridges and underpasses can be replaced so wildlife can cross I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge safely which also keeps humans safe from wildlife-vehicle crashes.

In Tennessee, three locations were listed as the highest priority recommendations for construction:

  • Waterville Bridge: Add a wildlife-friendly shoulder along the underpass road when the bridge is replaced, and consider a future wildlife and pedestrian overpass in the area.
  • Naillon Branch: Replace the existing culvert with a larger structure suitable for all target species or construct an elk-friendly overpass. Pursue land acquisition or conservation easements to stabilize the area for wildlife.
  • Laurel Hollow: Replace the existing culvert with a larger structure (culvert or small bridge) suitable for all target species.

In North Carolina, four locations were listed as the highest priority recommendations for construction:

  • Wilkins Creek Overpass: Construct an overpass over I-40 between Wilkins Creek Box Culvert A (i.e. north) and the NCDOT Rest Area. Pursue land acquisition or conservation easements to stabilize the area for wildlife.
  • Single Tunnel Overpass: Construct an overpass extending the existing Single Tunnel land bridge across the rest of I-40.
  • Cold Springs Creek Exit Culverts: Replace the existing culverts on both the entrance and exit ramps with larger structures to facilitate better terrestrial and aquatic wildlife passage.
  • Groundhog Creek: Replace the three small existing culverts with a larger structure suitable for all target species.