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Fernanda Abra

Brazilian researcher Fernanda Abra, right, and Western Transportation Institute research ecologist Marcel Huijser have been studying how to reduce collisions between motorists and wildlife.

Montana drivers hit deer. Brazilian drivers hit tapirs. Fernanda Abra has been trying to fix this problem on both sides of the equator.

Her efforts earned her the 2019 Future for Nature Award in February, one of just three presented internationally this year, just before she left Missoula for Sao Paulo. It provides 50,000 Euros for future research and access to a multinational conservation network. It also puts her at the forefront of a problem that causes 2 million vehicle wrecks a year in the United States alone.

Abra has been finishing her doctorate in Montana this winter while preparing to work for the Brazilian government. Ten years ago, she was surveying projects throughout the world for good ideas and found one of the most advanced in Portugal. While studying that one, she learned about the wildlife crossings on Montana’s Highway 93 corridor between Missoula and St. Ignatius and got connected with Marcel Huijser.

In Montana, Huijser has been doing years of road safety analysis for Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute. Along the way, he’s learned that building tunnels or overpasses and fences only start the process of improving wildlife crossings. For example, adding a wildlife barrier fence to a road corridor can attract predators like mountain lions to places where deer congregate as they try to figure out the new travel route.

“I sent an email and Marcel accepted me for an internship — about one week,” Abra said. “He showed me the structures and defenses you had here, and I was enchanted by the topic. I was really motivated to find more mitigation solutions to the problem.”

That was in 2010. Since then, Abra has been steadily building her academic credentials while researching roadkill problems around the world.

In Brazil, Abra found many of that nation’s cross-county highways are built as private toll roads, and the private company is responsible for the safety of drivers there. So there is meticulous accounting for dead animals on the road and the accidents involved.

But there was little work done on how to prevent those accidents in the first place. Alba found road engineers had little understanding of how wildlife behavior could be factored into their designs.

“We started showing how much money was being spent attending to accident victims and losses to conservation,” Abra said. “This was totally new in Brazil.”

Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative coordinator Patricia Medici said Abra had a rare combination of field skills and analytical discipline.

"Fernanda plays a key role in the conservation of Brazilian mammal species because she knows how to measure the extent of the roadkill impact, the barrier effect of transportation infrastructure and most importantly, she knows how to mitigate the problems," Medici said in an email. "(She) feels confident and comfortable both doing fieldwork under tough conditions along highways and participating in technical and political meetings with professionals from environmental and transportation agencies." 

Huijser added Brazil has widely divergent road quality. Sao Paulo state is one of the most wealthy parts of the nation, and has the most developed road network. But much of it has been built just in the last 20 years. So historical traffic data reflected a time when traffic was much lower, roads were slower and few people traveled at night.

Paradoxically, improvements for human convenience often lead to more wildlife collisions. For instance, smoothing curves may encourage drivers to go faster, which makes it that much harder to stop or avoid a deer in the headlights. A new highway linking remote communities may also disrupt wildlife habitat, again increasing collisions.

“We’re struggling with this everywhere in the world,” Huijser said. “Road safety analyses typically focus on human fatalities. Animals don’t cause many deaths, but they do cause lots of damage. We need to diversify what engineers look at.”

In Brazil, Abra found few road inspectors knew enough about wildlife to properly identify one roadkill from another. That means they may not realize the difference between hitting a common giant capybara rodent from a rare tapir.

“We saw a lot of really bad pictures,” Abra said of the highway data. “We had to look at all of them and correct the record. Now we have a correct estimate on what animals are getting killed and how many.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.