Transportation ecology changed over the last 30 years. We have progressed through several phases in advocating for better mitigation of the effects of linear infrastructure, especially highways, on all species of wildlife. My presentation will recall many of the remarks that biologists, transportation practitioners, and environmental activists have repeatedly told me over this time, and illustrates how we have changed and progressed.
Surprisingly, my early attempts to bring the issue of vehicle-caused mortality as a threat worthy of mitigation were countered most strenuously by biologists. A state resource agency biologist stated that I would ‘ruin the credibility of biologists’ if I continued to push for mitigation of highway impacts on a declining population of fishers. Other biologists tended to be quiet antagonists towards a practical transportation ecology, mostly because they had no data on the efficacy of mitigation solutions.
In the second phase of transportation ecology, data began to support the possibility of effective mitigation against vehicle-caused mortality. DOTs began to see the benefits of fencing and crossing structures, and fewer feared their taxpayers complaining about a waste of money. Habitat connectivity, however, was still a tough call. While deer collisions in North America were the ‘gateway drug’ for mitigation measures, animals that did not cause vehicle property damage were mostly ignored. ICOWET became ICOET and grew to engage both biologists and transportation officials. The Transportation Research Board accepted a new committee (eventually) on ecology and transportation. Biologists found it easier to promote monitoring to improve mitigation measures. Pioneering engineers promoted awards for their organizations that risked building wildlife structures.
The next phase was public recognition that something was happening. The Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribe widely shared their monitoring images on Montana’s US 93 of mountain lions, otters, bears and other wildlife using their structures, causing dozens of email outbursts of enthusiasm. People (including biologists!) began to believe mitigating the effects of linear infrastructure was possible. ARC created a design competition of wildlife overpasses to raise awareness of engineers and other designers of the opportunity to create a novel change in how highways work. The number of wildlife crossings increased as DOTs and resource agencies sent practitioners to training to learn what we knew at this stage. Monitoring began to focus less on ‘will animals use these’ to ‘how do we make them more effective for more species’.
Transportation ecology is still an emerging science, combining STEM topics in challenging ways. We’ve moved from showing animals will use structures to investigating details that we had to skip in the early days. The next generation of scientists and practitioners have plenty left to solve!