Living close to Yellowstone National Park is a blessing most of us appreciate. We enjoy the geysers, the beautiful landscape, and the wild animals that live in the park. To get there from Eastern Idaho, many travel up U.S. 20 to West Yellowstone.
This highway runs parallel to Yellowstone through Island Park. According to officials at the Idaho Transportation Department, wildlife-vehicle collisions account for 23 percent of accidents — five times the national average. As visitor numbers have increased, so has traffic.
All this has prompted a proposal from ITD to expand Targhee Pass, reconstructing 4 miles of U.S. 20 and adding a truck lane from the junction of Idaho 87 to the Montana state line. This is an $11 million project slated for construction in 2021.
But the proposed expansion project increases the risks to human and wildlife safety.
This 4-mile stretch is a known hot spot for wildlife-vehicle collisions. Between 2010 and 2014 there were 17 such collisions there. And in 2015, a grizzly bear was killed by a car. It’s an important corridor for elk, moose, mule deer, black bears, grizzlies, pronghorn antelope, wolves and wolverines as they — just like us — move or migrate in and out of Yellowstone. Protecting many of these animals is a priority in the State Wildlife Action Plan.
According to an ITD-contracted study from 2016, “This area is of the greatest wildlife connectivity value of any stretch of US 20 due to how it bisects wildlife movements into and out of Yellowstone National Park.”
As they weigh options for this highway, ITD’s contractors are seeking public input. This is an unprecedented opportunity for the department to consider wildlife safety efforts in the initial planning, budgeting and engineering process for this project from the start.
The easiest solution to keep people and wildlife safe would be to slow speeds or reroute truck traffic off of U.S. 20. Increased road widths and higher speeds result in more wildlife-vehicle collisions — unsafe for people and bad for wildlife. Measures such as wildlife underpasses and overpasses need to be considered, as they have been shown to reduce collisions by 80 percent to 90 percent.
ITD will design for safe wildlife passage only if there is strong public support. This is Idaho’s chance to be a leader in building safe roads that are both economically and ecologically sustainable. Let’s show ITD that we support their outstanding efforts to study and plan for safe wildlife passage by requesting that they build wildlife mitigation into their future plans.
Comments for the Targhee Pass scoping process are being taken now. You can share your thoughts at itd.idaho.gov/d6/?target=public-outreach.
Make Idaho’s roads safer both for drivers and wildlife, while preserving Island Park’s economic and cultural heritage.
Kim Trotter is the U.S. program director for Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.