Because, like many animals, its habitat is increasingly fragmented by highways – death traps for wildlife. An ambitious road ecology project is seeking changes that will stem the car-fuelled carnage
THE MOMENT JOSHUA JONES SAW the two young snapping turtles crawling across the roadway in front of him, he knew he might already be too late.

Highway 2 east of Gananoque is a busy thoroughfare with an 80-kilometre-per-hour speed limit. For tiny, slow-moving hatchlings, crossing that divide at the height of mid-morning traffic often has deadly consequences.

Image above: Pavement is peril for reptiles and amphibians, including painted turtles, who make up a significant portion of roadkill victims
Jones quickly parked his car on the unpaved shoulder and ran to the nearest turtle. He hoped to grab both but could reach only the first hatchling before oncoming traffic forced him back off the highway. “I couldn’t get to the second one in time,” he says wistfully. “It got flattened.”

Every hour of every day, countless animals — turtles, frogs, snakes, small mammals, birds, butterflies, skunks, foxes, coyotes, deer, bears — are struck and killed by cars and trucks on Ontario highways. Many of these events are never even noticed, and fewer still are ever counted. The 14,000 animal-vehicle collisions reported in an average year on provincial highways include only incidents that cause vehicle damage, making the number meaningless from an ecological standpoint. Additionally, these highways account for less than 1 percent of all Ontario roads.

Every hour of every day, countless animals — turtles, frogs, snakes, small mammals, birds, butterflies, skunks, foxes, coyotes, deer, bears — are struck and killed by cars and trucks on Ontario highways. Many of these events are never even noticed, and fewer still are ever counted. The 14,000 animal-vehicle collisions reported in an average year on provincial highways include only incidents that cause vehicle damage, making the number meaningless from an ecological standpoint. Additionally, these highways account for less than 1 percent of all Ontario roads.

The fact that Jones noticed the turtles was no accident. A master’s student in environmental studies at Queen’s University, he was on that stretch of highway doing research — counting and plotting the location of every incidence of roadkill. That day’s survey was one of more than 150 he conducted by car and bicycle over two years along the 38-kilometre segment of Highway 2 from Gananoque to Brockville. In all, he documented 9,000 animal deaths.

The tally is a grim one, but it comes with an upside. Jones’s research, completed last fall, marked the conclusion of an unprecedented series of multi-year roadkill studies coordinated by the Algonquin to Adirondacks Collaborative (A2A), a cross-border, not-for-profit organization that works with local municipalities and conservation and community groups to promote ecological connectivity in the region.

Common casualties: Multi-year roadkill surveys counted tens of thousands of dead animals on Highway 2, Highway 401 and the Thousand Islands Parkway

Common casualties: Multi-year roadkill surveys counted tens of thousands of dead animals on Highway 2, Highway 401 and the Thousand Islands Parkway

Starting in 2008, with original funding from Parks Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and Carleton University, followed by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Species at Risk Stewardship Program, the studies focused on three key area roads: Highway 2, Thousand Islands Parkway (where death rates are even higher) and Highway 401. These roads form a “triple threat” of obstacles and bisect the Frontenac Arch, a unique ecosystem on the narrow outcrop of Canadian Shield that extends southward from central Ontario across the St. Lawrence River — where it flows past the Thousand Islands — into New York State.

Now comes the second phase. Ryan Danby, an associate professor of geography, planning and environmental studies at Queen’s and a member of A2A’s road ecology committee, is using the combined data — which pinpoints collision hot spots by location, species and time of year — to draft a map of wildlife pathways through the area. The data will then be incorporated into an A2A report to be published later this year that will lay out a blueprint for a large-scale network of measures intended to spur major reductions in animal-vehicle collisions throughout the area. Likely elements include protective fencing, new and refurbished culverts, expanded underpasses and maybe even a wildlife overpass spanning the 401.

Deadly data: Ryan Danby and A2A Collaborative researchers use maps to reveal roadkill hotspots

Deadly data: Ryan Danby and A2A Collaborative researchers use maps to plot roadkill hotspots

If the recommendations are implemented — a big if, as that would require buy-in and funding from provincial ministries, municipalities, the public and local stakeholder groups — the work will not only help local animal populations but also enhance vital north-south ecological connectivity through the entire Frontenac Arch, perhaps the most important species-migration corridor in eastern North America. “From the head of Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean, this is the only major [north-south] pathway,” says Cameron Smith, chair of A2A’s road ecology committee. That environmental importance, coupled with the scale of the road ecology project, could make it the most significant Ontario has ever undertaken.

ONE OF THE FIRST JOKES kids learn asks why the chicken crossed the road. The answer could turn that question into a teachable ecology moment: “Because it had no other way to get to the other side.”

For generations, the toll cars have taken on animal populations and the fragmentation of wildlife habitat caused by roads have been problems hiding in plain sight — a dead squirrel on a city street, a skunk carcass on the highway, a deer in the headlights.

Mandy Karch, coordinator of the Ontario Road Ecology Group, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for wildlife protection, sees signs of change – both in the recognition of the magnitude of the issue and the understanding of how transportation networks can be designed to ease animal passage and enhance habitat connectivity. She cites the Long Point Causeway Improvement Project in Port Rowan, on Lake Erie, as an important milestone. The 3.5-kilometre causeway, which separates the lake from the Big Creek National Wildlife Area, connects the mainland with the point. Each year, causeway traffic would kill an estimated 10,000 turtles and other small animals. “It was the fourth-deadliest road in North America,” says Karch. But a $2.7-million community-driven project, completed in 2016, to install a network of signs, protective fencing and 12 wildlife underpasses has cut the death toll for reptiles by more than 50 percent. The project attracted lots of media attention, Karch notes, raising awareness of animal mortality on roads.

In addition, over the past six years the provincial government has built two of its largest highway installations that incorporate ecological features. Located on Highway 69 between Parry Sound and Sudbury and on the Rt. Hon. Herb Gray Parkway extension of Highway 401 in Windsor, these installations include dedicated wildlife overpasses, underpasses and, in the case of Highway 69, fencing along 16 kilometres of highway already constructed to funnel animals toward them.

Safe passage: A wildlife overpass spans Highway 69 south of Sudbury

Safe passage: A wildlife overpass spans Highway 69 south of Sudbury

 

 In both instances, the work was done in response to the environmental assessment process required for all new road construction in Ontario. Concern for at-risk snakes, such as eastern foxsnake and Butler’s gartersnake, led builders in Windsor to include a wildlife overpass, connecting important areas of tallgrass prairie snake habitat, among the 11 ground-level “tunnel tops” spanning the new below-grade highway. With respect to Highway 69, Andrew Healy, an environmental planner with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, credits “increasing pressure” from natural resources and environmental groups, the public and even the Ontario Provincial Police to address the dangers of wildlife collisions. The total cost of the latter installation was about $5 million.
To expand both awareness and understanding of road ecology, the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas project encourages people who submit sightings to specify if they saw the animal on a road, and if so, whether it was alive or dead, says Emma Horrigan, Ontario Nature’s conservation science coordinator. “We then share that data with partners across the province to inform further research related to road ecology and decreasing road mortality.”

Almost any species is a potential roadkill victim, but reptiles and amphibians are of particular concern. In the A2A surveys, frogs made up more than half the total of animals killed. Province-wide, turtles are a big worry. All of Ontario’s eight turtle species are listed as at risk, and road mortality plays a role in their population decline. “Turtles come to the [roadsides] to nest,” says Tricia Stinnissen of Tobermory, who did graduate research on wildlife road mortality on the Bruce Peninsula. “They’re also slow moving. So they get hit.”

A2A’s OVERALL RAISON D’ETRE IS  fostering landscape-scale ecological connectivity. The organization takes its inspiration from the story of a moose named Alice that was fitted with a radio-tracking collar in Adirondack Park in the United States in 1998. Alice showed up about two years later in Algonquin Provincial Park, having swum across the St. Lawrence and crossed the 401 during her 570-kilometre migration. “It’s a very good symbol of what A2A is about,” says David Miller, A2A’s executive director. “We’re trying to allow nature to move through the A2A corridor. Automatically, you begin to look at what are … impediments to that, and highways are obviously a major one.”

As its name suggests, most of A2A’s work entails collaborations with other organizations. This includes assisting local land trusts and nature clubs in adopting “conservation action planning” techniques that ensure their work supports the needs of the corridor as a whole. The road ecology project differs, says Miller, in that A2A is initiating an on-the-ground effort to meet a need that no existing group has addressed.

Cameron Smith: Naturalist wants to reduce vehicle-wildlife collisions in the Frontenac Arch

Cameron Smith: Naturalist wants to reduce vehicle-wildlife collisions in the Frontenac Arch

“The scientific foundation wasn’t there to allow us to put the pieces together, so we had to go out and get it,” says Miller. Once the research is published, A2A will return to the role it more typically plays: working with stakeholders to pool resources, expertise and fundraising efforts.

Danby cautions that arriving at specific proposals will be a complicated process and will include considerations beyond highway and habitat data. “If we’ve got a recommended location for an overpass, but the land on either side of the road is owned by private owners and there’s no long-term assurance it will be protected, that’s a challenge we’ll have to address,” he says. “On the other hand, if we find an appropriate location that’s owned by Parks Canada on one side and there’s a conservation area on the other, then maybe that’s a more suitable location [for that overpass].”

Triple threat: A segment of Highway 401 in the Frontenac Arch study area

Triple threat: A segment of Highway 401 in the Frontenac Arch study area

Cameron Smith, who lives in a farmhouse within a stone’s throw of Ontario Nature’s Lost Bay Nature Reserve — which lies within the A2A corridor — is eager to see the release of A2A’s proposals for the “triple threat” of highways. He says the report will be formally submitted to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation this summer, after which A2A will promote its findings with the help of its 50 partner groups.

Sitting at his dining table, Smith pulls out a map of the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes, and taps his finger down hard on the Frontenac Arch. “We need a paradigm change,” he argues, decrying the thousands of animals dying on the roads. “We need to start accepting that we share nature.” And he has little patience with worries that the recommended measures will probably cost millions of dollars to implement. “Look at that map,” he says. “Animals have been using that passage for thousands of years. Look at that map and ask yourself, What’s more important?”

This article was originally published in ON Nature magazine Summer 2018. Images courtesy of pixabay.com/Bernell; pixabay.com/Avalon_Mists; Ryan Danby; Kari Gunson/EkoCare International; Brian Banks (bottom two)