Creating Safe Passage

Balancing the Needs of Wildlife and People

Photo by Joye Ardyn Durham.

Along the mountainous roadways that connect Western North Carolina to East Tennessee, wildlife mortality caused by vehicle collisions is rapidly rising. With a boom in tourism and an increasing human population in the area, this already dire situation will only get worse without proper mitigation.

The Pigeon River Gorge connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to other wild and public lands in the area, and is home to large populations of black bear, elk, deer, bobcats, and other species. Projected movements of climate-driven species suggest there will soon be a high concentration of animals migrating through southeastern North America into the Appalachians. The Interstate 40 corridor, like many other roadways around the nation, is fragmenting these species’ habitat, creating a “barrier effect” that separates wildlife from their needs. It is a dangerous scenario for wildlife and motorists.

A tally of records from collision reports, DOT maintenance staff in Tennessee and North Carolina, weekly driving surveys from researchers, and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission showed 162 large mammals were killed on I-40 between 2018 and 2022. Bear account for the largest share of the roadkill—in the last four years, at least 92 bear, 69 deer and one elk have died on this single stretch of highway. The figures likely represent an undercount.

The mission of the Safe Passage Fund Coalition (SPFC) is to raise financial and public support for mitigation measures in reducing wildlife–vehicle collisions along a 28-mile stretch of I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge. The SPFC members are Wildlands Network, National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, Great Smoky Mountains Association, The Conservation Fund, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, and Defenders of Wildlife.

The coalition is a subset of a wider collaborative stakeholder group known as “Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project” made up of people and organizations who share a vision to balance the needs of native wildlife with the ever-growing human population and development. Safe Passage members include local, tribal, state, and federal agencies, land managers, conservation organizations, nonprofit partners, and other invested community members working in North Carolina and Tennessee.

Scientists from Wildlands Network and the National Parks Conservation Association teamed up to better understand animal behavior and pinpoint where wildlife-vehicle collision hotspots are located along I-40 through the Pigeon River Gorge. Analyzing how roads affect landscapes is called road ecology, and collecting this information is a key step in deciding where to add or enhance transportation infrastructure to reduce collisions.

Based on the research findings, the report provides 20 detailed recommendations for improvements to existing structures, or the creation of new structures paired with the installation of strategically-placed wildlife fencing. We are working hand in hand with state agencies including the NC Department of Transportation and the NC Wildlife Resource Commission that are supportive and proactive in these efforts.

The project is timely as recent federal funding opportunities for transportation improvement projects were unlocked when the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021. This is the first time in US history that specific funding is allocated for overpasses, underpasses, and fencing to restore traditional wildlife movement corridors. When designed correctly, these structures have been shown to reduce motorist collisions involving wildlife by up to 97%.

Reconnecting natural landscapes is a win for human safety, a win for economics, and a win for wildlife. Stewarding our natural resources supports ecotourism, and improving regional public safety and transportation systems improves the quality of life and promotes a thriving economy. SPFC is working toward long-term solutions by implementing conservation strategies that will protect quality wildlife habitat for years to come.

Nikki Robinson
North Carolina Project Manager

Help Safe Passage reach 10,000 pledges to protect wildlife in the Pigeon River Gorge by visiting the website and taking the pledge to:

  • Observe the speed limit.
  • Be vigilant for wildlife entering the roadway.
  • Secure food and trash in bear-resistant containers.
  • Teach others the importance of doing the same.