Our Opinion: Making our highways friendlier to animals

Every once in a while, a government bureaucracy will surprise everyone and do something commendable that isn't necessarily within its purview. In this case, the gold star goes to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which has collaborated for the past two years with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to help make state highways and byways — many of which slice through natural habitats — more animal friendly by incorporating wildlife passageways into new road designs, repairs and upgrades (Eagle, July 10.)

MassDOT seeks to cut down on roadkill and live animals in the roadways, which not incidentally can cause accidents and serious damage to vehicles. The goal dovetails nicely with DFW's mission to preserve, protect and perpetuate the state's fauna. This forward thinking was applied in Florida during the construction of Alligator Alley, a four-lane divided highway that bisects the Everglades in that state. Culverts were built into the roadbed at regular intervals to allow migration of the endangered Florida panther, to great success.

At the core of the collaboration is information gathering. The two agencies have created a state website — linkinglandscapes.info — where visitors can report roadkill, and these reports become part of a state database. And then there are the boots on the ground — volunteers who collect actual data by inspecting roads, using cameras, tracking in winter and interviewing people to find out where animal crossing "hot spots" occur. Eventually, all these data will be used to determine the best locations for culverts, bridges or other types of passageways for animals to use.

Here in Berkshire County, the focus is on Route 8, which may facilitate human traffic between Pittsfield and North Adams, but acts as a formidable and often fatal barrier to local wildlife that seeks to cross the highway in the course of its natural meanderings. The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit environmental group, is backing a long-term local project, Berkshire Wildlife Linkage, whose goal is to gather data about roadkill and furnish it to MassDOT for later use in road planning.

The Route 8 project is ongoing, and what makes it special is that the volunteers are ecologists and scientists who are able to bring their expertise to bear on analyzing the information they collect. When these efforts are melded into a comprehensive approach involving a cooperative state transportation agency, the picture may ultimately improve for local wildlife that would otherwise get caught in the headlights.

Since MassDOT has shown such openness of thinking in regard to the safety of wild animals (and the humans who collide with them), the agency also might be willing to entertain another suggestion: Why not build people crossings, too? Hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers would surely appreciate underpasses to accommodate their own traffic patterns, although things could get interesting if all the local fauna — humans included — decided to use the crossings at the same time.


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