New Mexicans move to make roads more wildlife-friendly

by Eliza Murphy



TIJERAS CANYON, New Mexico — Standing in the doorway of his taxidermy shop, Roy Cogburn gestures toward Dead Man’s Curve, a sharp bend in historic Route 66 as it climbs east out of Albuquerque through the steep-walled Tijeras Canyon. The spot might better be named Roadkill Curve. Lying between the Sandia and Manzano mountain ranges, Tijeras Canyon provides an important path for wildlife moving between prime habitats. Yet numerous lanes of traffic on both Route 66 and Interstate 40, concrete "Jersey" barriers and chain-link fences make travel tough for animals.

When he walks to work, Cogburn notices where the animals move through the canyon, and where they’re most apt to get hit by passing cars and trucks. In the past 10 years he’s "seen 50 deer, one bobcat and a gray fox dead down the road here," he says. "That’s what happens when we move where they live."

"This is a major corridor for animals. They have to either go under the roads (in culverts) or cross the freeway," says Louise Waldron, who has stopped by Cogburn’s shop to invite him to a meeting of local residents who are trying to stop the vehicular slaughter.

As Albuquerque has sprawled beyond city limits in recent years, residential development has sprouted up in the canyon, meaning that there are more vehicles on the road moving at faster speeds. That spells trouble for wildlife. Waldron was among the canyon residents who successfully fought off a proposed housing development in Tres Pistoles, a popular trailhead. Now, she’s determined to do something about the roads.

Leaving Cogburn’s shop, Waldron drives up the canyon. A hodgepodge of humble older homes, large new houses, a smattering of businesses, churches, blank billboards, and fences galore, the canyon is rife with old grievances and new wealth. Waldron points out well-worn paths made by animals. Sadness and outrage mingle in her voice as she talks about the black bear and deer she’s seen lying ravaged on the asphalt. "Nobody planned for these animals," she says.

Islands of habitat

Every day on U.S. roads, an estimated 1 million animals get killed, according to the Humane Society. Yet roads also have less obvious impacts. They cut the landscape into pieces, severing linkages between habitats and isolating animal populations. Roads and the sprawl they encourage threaten the mountainous sanctuaries for black bear, mountain lions and mule deer.

North of Tijeras Canyon, "The Sandia (Mountains) are at risk of turning into an isolated island of habitat," says Mark Watson, New Mexico Game and Fish habitat specialist. "All these animals are getting whacked on I-40, because there is no way for them to cross Tijeras Canyon along historic migration and travel corridors that they need to find food, water and mates." Watson says decades of research have shown how habitat loss and fragmentation reduce the ability of remaining habitat islands to support the same number of species, causing some to go extinct (HCN, 4/26/99: Visionaries or Dreamers?).

Two years ago, participants in a workshop, organized by Watson and the New Mexico Carnivore Working Group, found 30 places around the state in need of attention to reduce highway impacts on animal populations. The group identified Tijeras Canyon as one of four places of critical concern for wildlife.

Watson says they used information about habitat connectivity of major public lands, and the presence of threatened and endangered species, as well as animal-vehicle collisions obtained from state police reports. Crash data is only partly reliable, Watson says, because many collisions go unreported. He says a large truck can wipe out more than one deer at a time, yet keep going. Sometimes, animals may survive the initial hit, but wander off the road to die later.

Slow: wildlife crossing

In response to rising numbers of animal-vehicle collisions on its highways, the New Mexico Department of Transportation has started a series of projects aimed at making road-crossing safer for wildlife. The state’s first wildlife mitigation project, north of Aztec on U.S. 550, incorporated a combination of measures to try to keep animals off the most dangerous road in New Mexico.

When the department expanded the road to four lanes, road builders installed three miles of deer fencing, three wildlife underpasses, two one-way gates and specially made deer guards in an attempt to keep animals out of the right-of-way. Although the structures have not yet been evaluated for effectiveness, participants on a recent field trip found hoof tracks in the box culverts under the road — a hopeful sign.

Two years ago, this project inspired passion from an unexpected but potent segment of the population: schoolkids. Each year, students involved with Wild Friends, a program organized by the University of New Mexico’s Center for Wildlife Law, testify at the legislature in Sante Fe on a topic of their choice.

"When roadkill appeared on the ballot, it won by a landslide," says Carolyn Byers, program director.

The students argued convincingly on the behalf of wild animals, and remarkably, the legislature acted, passing House Joint Memorial 3 in 2003. Sponsored by Rep. Mimi Stewart, a former teacher, this nonbinding memorial urges the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the Department of Transportation to work together to help reduce animal vehicle collisions on New Mexico roads.

In May, a group formed the Tijeras Canyon Safe Passage Coalition with the goal of creating a wildlife crossing on I-40.

The author writes from Ashland, Oregon.



This story was funded by the McCune Charitable Foundation.

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