This week marks five years since the first meeting of stakeholders to discuss what has evolved into Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project. In early February 2017, more than 20 representatives from federal, state and nongovernmental organizations gathered in the Asheville office of Defenders of Wildlife to discuss elk and their habitat selection preferences. In translation: As elk expand into new territory, what types of habitat are they likely to move into?
All this was being driven by the Pisgah National Forest’s 12-Mile Project, which among other things, seeks to expand wildlife habitat in the Pigeon River Gorge. Several of us — including Hugh Irwin from The Wilderness Society and Kim DeLozier, then of Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation — were concerned that elk could wind up in the highway if we didn’t consider their response to proposed logging in the area.
A rich and impassioned conversation went back and forth, with representatives from agencies like the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service (Pisgah National Forest), Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission offering their thoughts. Conversation over lunch was especially productive. As that initial meeting concluded, we agreed to explore the issue of wildlife-vehicle collisions on Interstate 40 together.
That led to a September 2017 meeting in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, where road ecologist Tony Clevenger, PhD, came to speak with the group and attend a field trip. Clevenger made it clear that we needed to conduct research to understand the extent of the problem.
Fast forward to October 2018, and we were back in Maggie Valley attending a two-day Wildlife Crossing Workshop facilitated by the Federal Highways Administration.
Just a couple months later, Wildlands Network and National Parks Conservation Association began an extensive two-year research project along a 28-mile stretch of I-40.
So, here we are in February 2022. The results of our research are in the final stages of analysis. In March 2022, stakeholders will once again gather to learn about the results and start to prioritize focal areas within our study area.
Yes, it’s an exciting time for wildlife — as we’re on the cusp of addressing what seemed like an intractable issue just five years ago!
Jeff Hunter is a Senior Program manager with National Parks Conservation Association. He serves as the facilitator of the Safe Passage: I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project.