As a biologist with the Vermont Agency of Transportation, my job requires me to travel thousands of miles a year to assess natural resource concerns on transportation projects.
I sometimes catch myself thinking this is ironic, because not only is transportation the leading contributor to carbon emissions in Vermont, but there is also an increased chance of hitting the very wildlife we are trying to protect.
That said, we can’t just sit at our desks and hope for the best.
The mission of VTrans is to “provide for the safe and efficient movement of people and goods.” While human safety is paramount, an additional benefit of making our roads and bridges safer is reconnecting wildlife corridors that had been severed over the past 100 or so years.
How is this achieved? By making Vermont’s transportation network more resilient to increasing pressures from climate change. Enlarged culverts and bridges, better maintained riparian areas, and protected or restored floodplains are just several examples of floodwater-related design improvements that also make roads and bridges more accommodating to wildlife.
This is taken to the next level by working with conservation partners to make sure these designs consider wildlife directly.
However, Vermont is a rural state with a strong variety of wildlife and not all parts of the state’s transportation network rise to the level of being critical for wildlife movement. Transportation infrastructure is expensive and Vermont’s climate is harsh, so transportation funds only get us so far.
The Shutesville Hill Wildlife Corridor between Waterbury and Stowe, however, consistently rises to the top when prioritizing areas in the state’s transportation network for improved wildlife connectivity.
As the Route 100 corridor continues to see increased traffic, and more forested areas in the state are being lost to development, Shutesville Hill is quickly becoming the only remaining section of undeveloped land between the northern Green Mountains and the Worcester Range, both of which are important areas of wildlife habitat.
One of the most effective ways to permeate the roads that bisect wildlife habitat is to oversize an existing bridge or culvert that already needs replacement. Floodwaters can flow unimpeded, fish can move freely upstream to spawn, and moose and bear can walk along the river and stay off the road.
Unfortunately, there are no existing bridges or culverts along Route 100 at Shutesville Hill.
End of story? Hardly. VTrans is actively engaged with partners at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, local and statewide nongovernment organizations, and concerned citizens to come up with a multipronged approach to this critical wildlife corridor. The VTrans right-of-way is only a small piece of the puzzle. Biologists and foresters are also working with willing landowners in the corridor to improve or conserve the habitat on their land.
The ultimate goal is to ensure that all wildlife can safely move between the state’s larger habitat blocks. Some of the best options for the Shutesville Hill Wildlife Corridor are the ones deepest in the road ecology toolbox. They can also be among the most expensive and most polarizing.
One potential solution is active wildlife crossing signs. These signs will flash a warning to drivers when an animal breaks an invisible beam before crossing the road. Although not perfect, these signs could be an excellent solution, although there are concerns that they may create a false sense of security for motorists.
Another option is to build a wildlife bridge similar to the iconic wildlife bridges found in Banff National Park in Canada. These bridges may dramatically improve opportunities for wildlife to safely cross the road, but due to the cost of their construction and maintenance, it would take a huge effort to secure funding and approval for something of this magnitude.
The next time you drive over the Stowe-Waterbury line on Route 100, think of this as a four-way intersection, with people going one way and wildlife going another way.
Working together as communities, we can ensure that each can safely go on their way now and in the future.
James Brady is a biologist at the Vermont Agency of Transportation. He lives in Montpelier.