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Safe passage for wildlife in highway plans

Transportation Ministry gets ready to place large culverts under highway as animal crossings

The Ministry of Transportation will place four large animal crossing underpasses south of Whistler in an effort to keep wildlife and drivers safe on the Sea to Sky Highway.

The underpasses will all be in the Pinecrest area. A fifth is already in place at Horseshoe Bay.

The crossings have been included in the plans to upgrade the Sea to Sky Highway since the provincial government undertook an Environmental Assessment of the project in 2003.

Each will be placed where the highway embankments are high so that black bears, deer, raccoons, and cougars will naturally use the under-highway openings said Lisanne Bowness of the B.C. Ministry of Transportation.

“… It is expected that the animals will prefer to follow the natural terrain path of the culvert because it is low to the ground, rather than scramble up and try to climb a large embankment and cross the highway,” she said.

The two and three metre steel pipe culverts will be embedded under the road and will have natural soils and vegetation in and around them so that animals feel they are in a familiar environment. Research has shown that black bears and cougars prefer long, low, and narrow crossings.

There are also numerous smaller plastic culverts in place for frogs and other creatures looking to cross to the other side.

The highway, which is expected to have up to 9,700 cars travelling on it per day by 2010, can be deadly for wildlife.

This past summer and early fall at least 17 black bears died after being hit by cars on Highway 99 — that’s twice the usual number.

Animal culverts are nothing new in B.C. and provincial and federal experts were approached for their advice on the Sea to Sky underpasses.

“The ministry made the decision on where to place the larger culverts based on the EA, expert advice from wildlife biologists, and consultation with environmental agencies,” said Bowness.

“(We are) committed to maintaining the habitat connectivity between one side of the highway and the other. In addition to the wildlife passages the (ministry) is also working on upgrading bridge crossings, making the spans longer, allowing opportunity for animals to cross under the bridges and stay along the river bank.”

Banff National Park officials have been studying their 28 underpasses and two overpasses, built since 1976, for over a decade. Recent statistics show that since 1996 the animal crossings have been used 90,000 times. Fencing does exist to guide the animals to the openings.

“What we find is that the overpasses and underpasses… reduce the number of human/wildlife collisions and so the number of deaths of animals, as well as injuries to people, have been reduced substantially,” said Marjorie Huculak, spokeswoman for Parks Canada.

Vehicle/wildlife collisions are down by more than 80 per cent, and for elk and deer, collisions are down more than 96 per cent. The highway gets up to 24,000 vehicles per day at the height of summer.

“In Banff National Park I would say the overpasses and underpasses have been a great success and have been an excellent example of actions one can take to reduce mortality and human fatalities as well as improve wildlife movement,” said Huculak.

“…Certainly after 20 years of using these we definitely know that they do work.”