I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Project Area
Ensuring our public lands are interconnected is critical to protecting the variety of unique wildlife that live in the Southern Appalachian mountains, which include Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Habitat destruction and fragmentation are particularly threatening to far-dispersing species like black bear and elk that seek seasonal breeding and foraging opportunities outside park boundaries.
There has been a 43% increase in traffic volume on Interstate 40 in the Pigeon River Gorge in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee in the last 16 years. Wildlife mortality caused by vehicle collisions is rapidly rising. Due to increasing human populations and growing tourism in the area, this situation will only get worse. Furthermore, projected movements of climate-driven species suggest there will soon be a high concentration of animals migrating through southeastern North America into the Appalachians.
Wildlife movement in the region
Reducing mortality and lessening the barrier effect in the I-40 corridor is paramount to increasing the safe flow of animals in and out of the national park to adjacent public lands. The first step to mitigation is gaining an understanding of how these animals navigate the landscape. Where do they go, when, and why?
With support from multiple stakeholder partners and organizations, National Parks Conservation Association and Wildlands Network work together to research wildlife movement patterns in the Pigeon River Gorge. Black bear, elk, and white-tailed deer are the main focus of the study, but researchers have been monitoring many other species as well, using traffic collision data and wildlife cameras to determine where and how humans can make changes to best help wildlife cross the highway.
Several potential solutions exist to address the issue of wildlife–vehicle collisions. One possibility is developing wildlife overpasses, which are becoming common in the west and have reduced collisions. Additionally, improving existing structures that wildlife use to cross I-40 might be a viable solution to guarantee safe crossings.
The best strategies will emerge as research develops in tandem with new input from partner organizations and stakeholders. Improvements for sections of I-40 in the gorge planned by state transportation agencies may present the perfect opportunity to make crossing safer for critters and improve public safety.
Looking at the big picture
Increasing highway permeability in the Pigeon River Gorge will be a giant step toward improving animal population health. But this will represent only the first project in a series of much-needed regional mitigation efforts. The I-40 corridor could serve as a model for other interstate highways that also disrupt the Southern and Central Appalachian corridors.
As the effects of climate change become more pronounced in coming years, it will be critical for animals to safely use these routes to migrate up the Appalachian chain. Most importantly, we must all work together as partners with the common goal of preserving biodiversity for future generations.