THERE WAS AN UNUSUAL TRAFFIC DELAY recently on Highway 1 in Langford when RCMP, called by concerned drivers, stopped traffic to allow a bemused black bear to move on its way after spending hours in the middle of the highway.
It was a rare happy ending. Wildlife on highways usually means wrecked vehicles, injuries and dead animals. For Dana Livingstone and other members of the grassroots organization Wildlife Advocates Collective, the Langford bear was a graphic example of the need for more large animal wildlife tunnels or overpasses on Vancouver Island. According to the Collective, Langford has the most calls around bear conflicts on Southern Vancouver Island because of fragmentation of their habitat and lack of corridors.
Black bear in Juan de Fuca area near Victoria, BC (photo by Gary Schroyen)
Animals usually follow riparian zones or travel traditional routes, but often find their access blocked by fences, new developments and highways, said Livingstone, an East Sooke resident and former park naturalist and outdoor education specialist.
“They need to cross the roads to get to the water or their food source and then they get stuck in these fragmented landscapes. People just don’t stop and then they complain about the animals,” said Livingstone.
The Wildlife Advocates Collective is wrapping up a long, ultimately successful campaign to have three culverts modified to allow large animals, such as bears, deer and cougars, to cross Highway 14 in Sooke. The group is now extending the campaign to the rest of the Island.
In addition to public education, the group is waitlisted for a presentation to the provincial Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services in an effort to persuade government that making highways safer for animals saves money and human lives.
Making highways safer for animals saves money and lives
On Vancouver Island, between 2016 and 2020 there was an average of 2,300 crashes each year involving an animal and an annual average of 190 injured humans according to ICBC statistics. Throughout the province, there is an average of 9,900 crashes involving animals every year.
There is no tally of the number of animals killed and, even when a hit is reported, many animals will crawl off the road and die in the bush.
Despite Vancouver Island’s prolific wildlife, the only current underpass for large species is on Highway 19 near Courtenay—constructed as part of the 150-kilometre Vancouver Island Inland Highway Project—and it is clear that many more are needed, according to Livingstone.
Elk in Juan de Fuca area near Victoria, BC (photo by Gary Schroyen)
“Even the new Malahat improvements did not include an undercrossing for large species. This is insane as [an employee of] Emcon [the highways maintenance contractor] has told me they pick up so many dead and dying deer near the Shawnigan turnoff, which is a known corridor for deer, bear and elk,” said Livingstone, who also wants more illuminated highway signs warning drivers when animals are on the road.
“Now there’s a whole pile of land for sale on the right side of the Malahat where the deer are stuck. They are not thinking, they are not moving forward on creating specific passages for large species like other provinces and countries are doing,” she said.
The Netherlands, for example, has more than 600 wildlife crossings to protect badger, boar and deer populations, including one that crosses a river, railway line and sports complex; in Longview, Washington, the Nutty Narrows Bridge—a rope bridge over a road—is specifically designed for squirrels. On Christmas Island in Australia, a crab bridge allows 50 million red crabs to follow their traditional migratory route.
In BC a number of smaller tunnels, usually culverts, are used by species such as raccoons and rabbits and there is an amphibian undercrossing near Tofino, but they are unsuitable for larger species.
For the Highway 14 campaign, the Wildlife Advocates Collective, spearheaded by Livingstone and Lisa Love, enlisted help from wildlife advocate and photographer Gary Schroyen, who took photos of animals near Highway 14. As well, Jane Hansen, a conservation GIS analyst, mapped all reports of wildlife in the West Shore area, whether calls to the Conservation Service or an animal hit on the highway.
Hansen looked at the big parks around West Shore, such as Goldstream, Sea-to Sea, East Sooke, Matheson Lake, Roche Cove and Sooke Hills Wilderness Area and found a landscape criss-crossed with roads and privately-owned land without the corridors that wildlife populations need.
“So, how are these animals supposed to move between these parks safely?” she asked.
Using ICBC statistics, Hansen mapped 434 wildlife collision reports in Sooke between 2015 and 2019, of which 313 were on Highway 14. The reports do not give the species of animal, Hansen said. “But you can pretty well assume that it’s not going to be a squirrel or a raccoon or a skunk. It’s going to be a big enough animal that someone is going to phone in a report,” she said.
Chart by Jane Hansen using ICBC statistics on Westshore wildlife collisions, with map of wildlife collision reports, 2015-2019.
Animal underpasses were not included in the initial budget for the Sooke highway improvement project, which will see four kilometres of the heavily-travelled road widened to four lanes with a median barrier.
But growing awareness of wildlife safety, helped by a petition, organized by the Wildlife Advocates Collective and signed by almost 3,000 people, put the issue on the front burner for the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. In May, the Ministry announced that the project, scheduled for completion next year, will include three “wildlife-related structures.”
Two of the enhanced culverts will be near Connie Road and the third will be east of Glinz Lake Road.
Cougar in Juan de Fuca area near Victoria, BC (photo by Gary Schroyen)
Instead of the traditional round steel culverts, the tunnels will be square with a gravel base, which is an important element as animals such as deer do not like walking on concrete, said Livingstone, who conducted a home experiment on preferred surfaces for deer.
“They do not like cement—their hooves slip on it, especially in the winter and then they can’t get away from a car and that’s how a lot of them get hit,” Livingstone said.
“So, call me crazy, but, on our five-acre property we laid down a concrete slab that was about 50 feet by 70 feet,” said Livingstone. Deer, which usually used the area, shied away from the concrete and then started using an alternate route where Livingstone had laid down mulch.
Ministry has little budget for wildlife protection
Dr Leonard Sielecki, manager of the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure’s wildlife program, said the lack of underpasses and overpasses on Vancouver Island is historic and the push for change reflects evolving attitudes towards wildlife.
“What you are looking at is a legacy of the past and not a reflection of the present or the future,” he said.
That legacy is “environmentally unsustainable highway systems created at a time when public expectations and government regulations were focused largely in increasing safe mobility for road users,” according to the ministry’s Wildlife Program brochure.
But, although those expectations have changed, money for the wildlife program is tight, with a budget—unchanged for the last decade—of $825,000, from the more than $500-million spent each year on provincial highway operations.
One key to creating viable wildlife crossing programs is partnering with local businesses and Livingstone is hoping companies will be willing to donate to specific projects.
That could be a win for everyone, providing jobs for fledgling surveyors, biologists and even artists, as well as creating awareness of species at risk, she said.
Sielecki applauds the efforts being made by Livingstone and her group and said the growing awareness is a reflection of changing public attitudes.
“I have been in this position for 25 years and the changes that have occurred over that time have been phenomenal. There is support for wildlife protection at all levels from the minister down,” he said.
The ministry’s wildlife program is unique among transportation ministries and agencies in North America as it emphasizes raising wildlife awareness and, especially as climate change alters wildlife habits, connectivity for animals is becoming increasingly important, Sielecki said.
For example, when the ministry was made aware of a toad migration near Duncan, staff worked with sign companies and maintenance contractors to come up with graphics for a toad migration, advising drivers to take an alternate route.
Wolf in Juan de Fuca area near Victoria, BC (photo by Gary Schroyen)
“People were very considerate and conscious about the wildlife migration,” Sielecki said.
However, there are, inevitably, bottom line considerations. Constructing animal underpasses in situations such as Highway 14, where construction work is ongoing, is different from digging an expensive and traffic-disrupting tunnel under an existing highway.
The Ministry of Transportation and Highways said the Highway 14 conditions for building underpasses are “optimal,” meaning that the cost is about $250,000, a small fraction of the $120-million spent since 2017 on making the main highway to Sooke safer for drivers.
Cost always has to be a consideration, said Sielecki, adding that BC’s underpasses and overpasses are utilitarian compared to cadillac versions in areas such as Banff National Park, where overpasses are funded by the federal government.
“It’s not that we don’t want to do things, we have to be responsible for taxpayers dollars and do the most good with the funding we have available,” Sielecki said. Different, less expensive measures are employed besides building tunnels. Mountain goats were kept away from a busy highway when the ministry created an appreciated salt lick well away from it.
There are about 20 large animal underpasses and overpasses in BC, most in places such as Kicking Horse Canyon and the Okanagan Connector, and the ministry is looking at retrofitting wildlife tunnels in places such as Highway 3, between Sparwood and the Alberta border, Sielecki said.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the program is looking at images from wildlife cameras, showing animals using the crossings, said Sielecki, pointing to a video of a mother moose teaching her calf how to use an underpass.
“We have a wealth of wildlife that most jurisdictions in North America don’t have. Animals ranging from badgers to bison,” Sielecki said.
Getting them safely across the roads is challenging. “But it is rewarding,” he said.
Both the Wildlife Advocates Collective and Sielecki are collecting data from the public on where animals are crossing so the best decisions can be made on warning lights and wildlife crossings.
The Wildlife Advocates Collective is on Facebook. You can also contact Dana Livingstone at 250-642-0220 or email@example.com. Leonard Sielecki of the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winniing journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith