EVARO - The People's Way, otherwise known as U.S. Highway 93 as it passes through the Flathead Indian Reservation, very much caters to critters, too, it appears.

Many folks like the moose story best.

When the large wildlife overpass north of here above the highway opened for its furry traffic, what appeared to be a bull moose was the first to christen it.

Whisper Camel's favorite photographs, however, taken by surveillance cameras, don't always come from the most visible of the 41 wildlife crossings between Evaro and Polson.

"My favorites are of the females with their young," says Camel, a wildlife biologist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. "I'm seeing them all the time."

They remind her of human mothers teaching their children how to safely cross a street.

"It's mostly deer and black bears," she says. "Sometimes the does will lie down in the culvert, and their fawns will run back and forth through it. They're definitely learning and teaching."

The goal of the crossings, of course, is to reduce the number of animal-vehicle collisions, which take a toll not only on the wildlife population, but cause more than $1 billion in automotive damages in the U.S. each year.

"Even skunks get hit," Camel says. "They don't wreck your car, and people may not care much about skunks, but still, nobody likes the smell it leaves on your vehicle."


It will be a few years before all the data have been collected and analyzed, but Camel says the 41 crossings, anecdotally, seem to be doing what they were designed for.

"In one structure north of Mission," she says, "we've already had 6,000 occurrences of deer" using the passage. "That's not to say deer aren't still occasionally hit on the road. But we appear to have large numbers using the crossings."

Forty of the crossings on this 56-mile stretch of 93 run below the highway, mostly in the form of culverts, or under bridges designed to give animals room to pass without stepping on pavement. Drivers don't even notice the majority of the wildlife crossings.

The $1.88 million overpass north of Evaro is another story. A 26-foot-high and 200-foot-long tunnel was constructed where only air existed to let animals in these parts walk over the highway instead of under it.

It's part of what a report prepared for the Montana Department of Transportation calls "one of the most extensive wildlife-sensitive highway designs to occur in the continental United States."

Wildlife overpasses originated in Europe, where the longest, the Natuurbrug Zanderij Crailo in The Netherlands, runs half a mile above ground and allows animals to pass over a highway, a railway and part of a golf course.

"Here in North America, Banff (National Park in Canada) is the keystone," Camel says.

There are 24 wildlife crossings on the Trans-Canada Highway in the park, including two overpasses.

"Everyone on this project went to look at the ones in Banff," Camel says. "Our overpass is kind of modeled after Banff."


Which animals use them?

Photographs from the cameras show a long list of species: grizzly and black bears, whitetail and mule deer, elk, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, beavers, badgers, river otters, skunks, weasels - and, of course, moose.

"The picture of the moose was kind of blurry," Camel says, "but it appeared to be a bull."

Even some birds opt to fly through the culverts. Owls, pheasants, partridges and more have been caught by the cameras.

There are more than 16 miles of fencing - 8.3 on one side of the highway, 8.3 on the other - on three different sections of 93 between Gray Wolf Peak Casino near the overpass, and Ravalli, to deter wildlife from crossing the road.

In addition, all the crossings have "wing fencing" of up to a quarter-mile on either side of them to help guide the animals to their safe passage.

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"There is a learning curve for wildlife," Camel says, which is why she likes the pictures of deer that have figured out where they can cross with no traffic, and are now showing it to their young.

Another 17 to 18 wildlife crossing structures are anticipated as more sections of Highway 93 North are reconstructed.


Camel, a wildlife biologist with the tribes for 12 years, started as a trainee while completing her undergraduate degree at Salish Kootenai College and the University of Montana. Her master's thesis at Montana State University involved pre-construction monitoring of wildlife crossing Highway 93 on the reservation, using paw prints in "sand-tracking beds" to determine what animals were crossing the road and where.

"We looked at roadkill rates as well," Camel says, and data gathered before reconstruction of the People's Way began will be compared to that being gathered now in an ongoing five-year study of the new wildlife crossings by MSU's Western Transportation Institute.

The number of reported roadkills on this 56-mile stretch spiked dramatically after Pat Basting, an MDOT biologist in Missoula, emphasized to maintenance workers the importance, for the purposes of the study, of reporting animal carcasses removed from the highway.

From the teens, 20s and 30s in the years leading up to it, the number of annual animal-vehicle crashes on this stretch leaped into the 90s and 100-plus range from 2002 to 2005, after Basting's request for more accurate information.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a whopping 93 percent of the roadkill were deer.

Another 5 percent were black bears. The rest were a smattering of grizzlies, coyotes, raccoons and turkeys.

All of them now have other means by which to get to the other side of the road, and the study is on to determine just how successful they will be.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.


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