Biden’s $350 million plan for animal crossings in the infrastructure bill
Fifty miles east of Seattle, a bridge crosses a steep stretch of Interstate 90 known as Snoqualmie Pass. This is no ordinary bridge, meant for automobiles or pedestrians. Covered in topsoil, boulders, and seedlings, it is intended to convey wild animals from one side of the highway to the other — and it’s working.
Since 2018, when the bridge opened and the first animal, a coyote, scampered over the six lanes below, the structure has carried creatures as large as elk and as small as toads. And it should attract even more users as the seedlings grow into trees and animals acclimate to its presence.
“As we get more shade, it’s going to be different,” Patty Garvey-Darda, a Forest Service wildlife biologist, told Vox during a recent visit to Snoqualmie Pass. “Hopefully someday we’ll see the exact same species up here as we see in the forest.”
The Snoqualmie Pass bridge is one example in a broader category of infrastructure, known as wildlife crossings, that help animals circumvent busy roads like I-90. Crossings come in an array of shapes and sizes, from sweeping overpasses for grizzly bears to inconspicuous tunnels for salamanders. A body of research demonstrates that crossings can reconnect fragmented wildlife populations, while protecting human drivers and animals alike from dangerous vehicle crashes. “This structure is paying for itself because of the accidents we haven’t had,” said Garvey-Darda, as trucks roared by 35 feet below.
The construction of such crossings has never been more urgent. Roadkill rates have risen over the past half-century; today, around 12 percent of North American wild mammals die on roads. And new satellite-tracking and genetic technologies have revealed subtler harms. Busy interstates prevent herds of elk and mule deer from migrating to low-elevation meadows in winter, occasionally causing them to starve. In California, freeways have thwarted mountain lions from mating, leaving the cats so inbred that they’ve fallen into an “extinction vortex.” Wildlife crossings allow animals to find food and each other across sundered landscapes, and help them access new habitats as climate change scrambles their ranges.
But despite crossings’ benefits, they remain scarce in the US. Around 1,000 wildlife crossings currently dot America’s 4 million mile road network. (For comparison, the Netherlands’ road system is only 2 percent as large but boasts over 600 crossings.) The reason for their rarity? Money. The Snoqualmie Pass bridge cost $6.2 million, and even humble turtle tunnels can run up multimillion-dollar price tags. This kind of expense explains why wildlife crossings were once a punching bag for some conservative politicians, who decried animal passages as government waste.
Now that’s beginning to change. Earlier this month, the House passed the INVEST in America Act, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden is expected to soon sign into law. The bipartisan package earmarks billions of dollars in funding for highway maintenance, broadband internet, and airport upgrades — as well as $350 million for animal-friendly infrastructure like bridges, underpasses, and roadside fences. Although that provision is a tiny slice of the bill, it’s easily the largest investment in wildlife crossings in national history.
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These innovations are not only wildly effective at preventing roadkill, they’re also an underappreciated way to protect people. Hundreds of Americans die annually in car crashes with animals, and tens of thousands more are injured. “Whether it’s human safety or habitat connectivity or fiscal responsibility, there’s something in this bill for you,” said Renee Callahan, executive director of ARC Solutions, a group that studies and promotes crossings. “This has become a staunchly bipartisan issue.”
When the US interstate highway system was constructed more than half a century ago, ecosystems were damaged in ways we’re only now beginning to fully understand. Wildlife crossings and other animal-friendly infrastructure help mend that damage, and accommodate the creatures whose lives our highways have disrupted. Even within a bitterly divided Congress, it’s a rare area of consensus. One of the few things uniting some fiscal conservatives with climate-concerned Democrats is a literal bridge.
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Fifty miles east of Seattle, a bridge crosses a steep stretch of Interstate 90 known as Snoqualmie Pass. This is no ordinary bridge, meant for automobiles or pedestrians. Covered in topsoil, boulders, and seedlings, it is intended to convey wild animals from one side of the highway to the other — and it’s working. Since…