Berkshire Wildlife Linkage aims to reduce roadkill by giving critters safe passage

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OTIS — From high overhead, Route 8 is a thread, barely visible, woven more or less north-south across rural Massachusetts.

But at ground level, it can be a stone-cold wildlife wall —- and killer.

"We saw a huge splatter of blood," said Jane Salata of Lenox, speaking of her journey along Route 8.

Salata and others want to even the odds for animals of all sizes.

This summer, The Nature Conservancy is pushing a long-term project, Berkshire Wildlife Linkage, to reduce the carnage of roadkill by collecting data that can inform future road and bridge projects.

If animals die going over roads like Route 8, the project asks, why can't more of them find safe passage under them?

Salata, a 67-year-old psychotherapist and hospice social worker, donned a brightly colored safety vest the other day. She joined a team of four scouting bridges and culverts in the region to see whether they already enable wildlife to travel under the road.

They log the results and make them available to the state Department of Transportation, as well as to a wider project related to climate change.

After a morning wading through streams and ducking inside culverts and bridges, the team paused at a roadside picnic table for lunch.

A stream of cars and tractor-trailer trucks pounded by on one side of the table, against a backdrop of thick forest. On the other side of the table, water coursed down the Farmington River, as hills of the Tolland State Forest rose over the far bank.

"It's the only barrier between amazing habitats," Laura Marx, a forest ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, said of the highway.

For years, in a project it acknowledges to be ambitious, the nonprofit has been working to rebuild natural wildlife corridors obstructed by decades of human construction. In the 90 miles the Appalachian Trail passes through the state, it crosses 40 roads.

"The challenge is just the sheer numbers," Marx said.

The Berkshire Wildlife Linkage project seeks to improve safety for wildlife, with a side benefit of easing hazards for people traveling the roads.

One way to achieve that, the project says, is to encourage the state to consider wildlife passage when it rebuilds infrastructure.

In that, the DOT is a willing partner.

Judi Riley, a spokeswoman for DOT, said the department likes to join forces with environmental groups on this issue, folding their findings, when it can, into proposed work plans. The goal, she said, is "to identify key areas where wildlife collisions with vehicles occur most frequently."

The DOT is also a partner, with other state agencies, in a volunteer effort called Linking Landscapes for Massachusetts Wildlife. Like the conservancy project, it works to improve public safety, protect wildlife and bring conservation principles into transportation planning. The DOT's partners include the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and the University of Massachusetts.

"They have been very open to figuring out what's working and not working," Marx said of the highway department.

Seeking proof

To make its case, the conservancy is amassing a database documenting wildlife migration patterns. Aside from identifying places where culverts and bridges restrict passage, the project is tallying road kill incidents and using wildlife cameras and winter animal tracking.

Andrew Wood, a graduate student at the University of Vermont, is on the road-kill beat this summer, aiding the project and gathering material for a master's thesis.

In addition to scouting Route 8 on Berkshire County's eastern edge, he will be working with Marx to study wildlife passage successes — and failures — on portions of the Mass Pike and Route 2 to the north.

Marx said it's trickier to gauge the ways in which the Pike obstructs animal migration. Though travelers don't know it, the highway accommodates many river and stream crossings, some of which are large enough for wildlife to use.

"There's definitely some use by wildlife," Marx said of passages under the Pike. "We'd love to get a more complete picture."

So far, Wood has been prowling Route 8, checking a theory that the road may prove insurmountable for abundant wildlife in nearby forests.

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That's what computer models suggest. "Common sense tells us the same thing," he said. "These areas have large blocks of intact forest habitat. If severed, they're very hard to put back together."

But he cautions evidence is still needed.

"We don't know actually what we're going to find on this road," Wood said of Route 8. "What we can offer is the eyes and perspectives of ecologists and scientists."

On a recent Wednesday, Jessica Applin of Belchertown, another wildlife ecologist, joined the conservancy project. Three years ago, she finished her own master's degree related to wildlife corridors, focusing on the Westfield River watershed. She's studied wildlife corridor issues along Route 23 in Great Barrington and Route 7 in that town and in Sheffield.

She learned in June that a bobcat died on another road she studied, Route 112 in Worthington.

Data collection

Elia Del Molino, program manager with the Berkshire Environmental Action Team in Pittsfield, was leading the surveying on Route 8.

Along with gathering data on wildlife obstacles, the team will be reporting findings to the 13-state North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative.

"We find these culverts that are washing out," Del Molino said. "The fear is the next big hurricane."

"A bigger culvert is better for everyone involved," he said. "This is how you can make this road more permeable and safer for wildlife."

At one point, three members of the team climbed down banks off Route 8 to check the vitals on a 1923 bridge. Traffic streamed by overhead. Del Molino waded off to check upstream and downstream widths.

"Just be sure you put down in the comment section that there are minnows," he called out to Salata, who remained up top with a clipboard.

The stream occupied the full width below, from one abutment to the other.

"Nothing's going to move through here," Del Molino said of possible animal passage below the road. And that presents a roadkill risk. "If something pops up over this guardrail, it's hard to stop."

He expects action soon to repair two culverts carrying a stream in the Pittsfield State Forest that had been restricting passage of brook trout. The devices had decayed. "They were literally falling into the stream," Del Molino said.

Del Molino has been helping team member Salata and others qualify as lead observers in the collaborative's data project by examining 20 structures. By midday, Salata had completed her 15th.

But in winter, she also brings a new expertise in animal tracking, fostered through study with expert Sue Morse.

"Every time I go out I learn one more thing," Salata said.

For the rest of the summer, Wood has perhaps the most gruesome task in the conservancy project — hunting for animals that didn't make it across a road.

He's been traveling Route 8, checking in with town highway crews and residents. Even older reports have value, he said, though they often lack detail.

"They may not be carrying a GPS in their back pocket, like I do," Wood said of residents.

People can also use the state's Linking Landscapes website to enter information on roadkill.

The homepage for the site, linkinglandscapes.info, features a database link at the top that brings visitors to a form used to report roadkill. The form includes a map that pinpoints where wildlife were hit and killed.

While the conservancy project aims to restore corridors for wildlife, getting animals off highways benefits everyone, Wood argues.

"It goes both ways with roadkill. Hitting even a small animal can injure your passengers," he said. "There's a lot of common ground here."

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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