KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Wildlife crossings can help reduce the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions (WVCs) and a group that has been working to bring them to the Smokies is gaining more support. An event for the public is also happening later this month.
The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project, which the Smokies Safe Passage Coalition spearheads that launched in 2018, is still in the works.
“As the result of our research, we offered North Carolina DOT and Tennessee DOT twenty-one evidence-based recommendations to improve wildlife permeability to safely cross the roadway,” Jeff Hunter, a Southern Appalachian director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said. “That includes wildlife overpasses, underpasses, and strategically located wildlife fencing.”
The Smokies Safe Passage Coalition aims to create the I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project to improve wildlife connectivity and reduce WVCs in a 28-mile stretch of I-40 that’s just outside of the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Hunter said they have been researching that area for more than three years to identify where animals are being killed and where they are approaching and crossing the interstate.
“If you get off at Exit 443 and drive a short distance up the Foothills Parkway, and look to the west, you’ll see all kinds of development,” Hunter said. “But in the Foothills Parkway, it’s a green corridor and wildlife like bears will follow that, looking for mates, looking for food, at this time of year it’s primarily acorns, and unfortunately (this bear) chose to cross, and the result was a mortality, thankfully no one was injured. But this is very much an economic issue.”
Hunter said the economics behind WVCs include traffic back-ups due to the collision, leading to supply-chain interruptions. Human safety risk is also a factor. Most WVCs occur in the fall.
Transportation planning is a slow process, and Hunter said both TDOT and NCDOT are looking into funding some of the 21 recommendations from the Smokies Safe Passage Coalition.
“I think we’re going to see some progress in the years ahead,” Hunter said.
An event called “The Crossing” to further educate the public about wildlife crossings is happening at Pleb Urban Winery in Asheville, N.C. on Oct. 26. They will be screening different films related to road ecology.
“It’s going to be a fun and informative evening,” Hunter said. “If you want to make the trek over from Knoxville, come on over, just be careful driving on I-40 through the Gorge. This is the time of year when bears in particular are crossing the roadway.”