Not long ago children in Island Park, Idaho, on Yellowstone’s doorstep, rode bikes down U.S. 20 through town. Today traffic is terrifying. There are no safe passage provisions for wildlife. Roadkill is five times the national average.
Despite phenomenal growth over the last 25 years, Island Park still enjoys nature’s beauty to a degree many have never known. But without planning for inevitable growth, more visitors, residents and traffic, Idaho will lose its mountain allure to the sprawl of development, congestion, noise and pollution that degrade the quality of life in so many places.
Many local, state and national wildlife, conservation and environmental groups are working together with Idaho Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the 16 states in the Western Governors Association, and the Center for Large Landscape Conservation for wise development while protecting natural areas and wildlife — including safe passage over roads.
Their extensive partnerships are a powerful tribute to the fact that nearly everyone supports their goals. Many of their volunteers, board members and donors live in our local Idaho communities. They represent us; they are our neighbors; they are us.
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Yellowstone visitation increased 48 percent in the 10 years from 2006-16. Many visitors travel U.S. 20 through Island Park. Wildlife vehicle collisions are already a concern, and wildlife collisions on U.S. 20 will increase without mitigation measures.
Idaho Transportation Department is currently revising the Targhee Pass Environmental Study in preparation for improvements on U.S. 20 approaching Yellowstone. They absolutely must consider wildlife mitigation measures like wildlife crossing structures.
Other Western states are implementing wildlife crossing structures — overpasses and underpasses — and reducing wildlife vehicle collisions by 85 to 90 percent.
Utah has nearly 50 wildlife crossing structures; Nevada is building additional structures. Wyoming Department of Transportation began construction this summer on multiple underpasses on U.S. 89/191 south of Jackson. Last year 335 wildlife mortalities were counted on Teton roads. WYDOT’s response is a lesson for Idaho and Island Park.
Wildlife crossings at Trappers Point, Wyo., reduced wildlife collisions by 85 percent, allowing migrating pronghorn to cross U.S.191 near Pinedale and improving human safety.
A current Wall Street Journal article, “Wildlife Crossings Get a Whole New Look,” summarizes the success of 39 crossings on U.S. 93, south of Polson, Mont., and further points out:
“Safety — for both animals and humans — is the main driver in crossings growth in the U.S. Collisions between wildlife and vehicles have risen 50 percent in the past 15 years, and such accidents now cost Americans $8 billion annually in damages and cleanup costs ....
“About 200 people a year die and 29,000 are hurt in wildlife-vehicle crashes in the U.S., ... For animals, it’s a slaughterhouse: There may be as many as 1.5 million wildlife-vehicle collisions a year — and the animals almost always die.”
It would be exceedingly irresponsible for ITD not to include serious wildlife mitigation measures in the current Environmental Assessment and plan for Targhee Pass.
Jean Bjerke is a nature photographer based in Island Park.