The roads scholar

An ecologist helps wildlife safely cross highways.

  • Road ecologist Marcel Huijser, seen here at a wildlife overpass near Missoula, Montana, has devoted his professional life to understanding how to help animals cross roads safely.

    Adam Sings in the Timber
 

In the orange Montana twilight, Marcel Huijser paces a bridge spanning U.S. Route 93, trying to think like a bear. This graceful arc, surfaced not with pavement but with soil and shin-high grasses, is a triumph of conservation engineering: Built by the Montana Department of Transportation in collaboration with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the bridge is one of 41 crossing structures in a 56-mile stretch of highway that help animals from moose to mountain lions safely traverse the road.

Yet Huijser, an ecologist who studies wildlife crossings, can't help but imagine ways to improve it. The grass, for example, fails to block the headlights of the Missoula-bound traffic 26 feet below. Huijser's remote cameras once captured a black bear fleeing from an approaching car's glare. "A visual screen would be helpful," he says, thoughtfully stroking the grizzled beard that covers his lean face. "It could just be a wooden fence."

To most people, roads connote progress. But Huijser sees asphalt as a challenge to surmount. One minute he's pointing out brush piles that allow rodents to navigate the overpass, and the next he's describing his vision for modular bridges that can be relocated to accommodate new migration routes as climate change pushes species northward.

Huijser's passion derives from his native Netherlands, where infrastructure is both a threat to wildlife and a tool for conservation. In the Netherlands – a country that has just one-ninth the landmass of Montana, and almost 17 times as many people – preserving wildlife has become an urgent, and necessarily urban, task. The nation boasts over 600 wildlife crossings, including the world's largest, the half-mile long Natuurbrug Zanderij Crailoo, which spans a railway, a sports complex and a business park.

Road ecology was an obvious choice when Huijser sought a wildlife research focus in the '90s in the Netherlands. In a place where bears and wolves have been extinct for centuries, that meant sweating the small stuff: specifically Erinaceus europaeus, the European hedgehog, dying by the hundreds of thousands on Dutch roads. Huijser's research revealed that planners could prevent hog-kill by building crossings at hedgehogs' favorite territory: the margins between forests and grasslands. "One of my statements during my Ph.D. defense was that they're really edgehogs," he says, sheepish at the pun.

In 1998, at a Florida conference on – what else? – road ecology, Huijser met Bethanie Walder, now his wife and, until recently, public lands director for a New Mexico-based conservation group, WildEarth Guardians. In 2002, he relocated to Missoula for a job with Montana State University's Western Transportation Institute (WTI) and discovered that U.S. agencies had different priorities than European ones – primarily reducing collisions with the large, common animals that frequently damage cars and injure people.

That's important, of course: Huijser has shown that wildlife crossings often pay for themselves by reducing crash expenses. But the focus on collisions often neglects the needs of small or rare species. Because deer use underpasses while grizzlies prefer overpasses, for instance, an ungulate-centric approach doesn't help threatened bears. "If you took a conservation perspective," Huijser explains, "you'd design structures of different type, dimensions and location."

The U.S. 93 project takes such a perspective – thanks largely to the tribes, whose legal muscle and concern for wildlife led to crossings being incorporated in state plans to widen the highway through the Flathead Indian Reservation. Huijser's camera-traps and track beds – groomed swaths of dirt that reveal hoof- and paw-prints – suggest the efforts are working. At least 20 different species have used the crossings, including bobcats, badgers and grizzlies. What's more, the structures have reduced crashes by at least 50 percent, suggesting that conservation and safety are compatible goals.

"That research is being used to justify projects across the West, around the country, and internationally," says Rob Ament, WTI's road ecology program manager. Huijser has consulted on Chinese and Mongolian highways, and last year published a study suggesting that Brazil  (where he'll teach this fall) could profit from crossings for capybaras, enormous rodents that roam in herds and cause traffic fatalities.

Yet while he calls his cost-benefit studies his most important work, finance isn't his primary motivation. "We have to consider what it's worth to have animals on the landscape," Huijser says. "That hasn't been part of our economic analyses. But our well-being depends on having wildlife around us."

 

This story was funded by the Solutions Journalism Network.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.