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
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...