Arizona will use the project's findings to make informed decisions about where it builds future highways, Gagnon explained.

"If we're building a new highway, we could say, 'Hey, this meadow's going to cause problems. If we have options, let's take the highway over here,'" Gagnon said. ADOT would know from the beginning where it should build underpasses.

 

Race Against Time

A critical layer in Arizona's GIS tool was one identifying the different types of property owners connected to land alongside highways -- ADOT contributed that information. By viewing a GIS map, the Arizona Wildlife Linkages Workgroup saw what land was federally, privately and state owned, as well as what was part of an Indian reservation. This helped the team organize its time and resources more efficiently, because building underpasses on state-owned land comes with additional challenges. For example, Arizona's Constitution lets the state auction its land to commercial developers to raise money for public schools. In many cases, by the time the workgroup identified a parcel of state land that needed an underpass, the sale to the private sector was already in progress. This meant the Arizona State Land Department had to ensure the wildlife underpasses wouldn't conflict with the winning buyer's development plans.

"We're in a race against time. The land is getting developed fast. A lot of these plans started before we began our planning," said Bruce Eilerts, manager of the Natural Resources Management Group within ADOT.

Geographic data from nonprofit organizations also inform Arizona's GIS tool. Environmental groups on the team alert the workgroup to prospective sites for highway underpasses. For example, environmental groups alerted the workgroup to an expansion project on Highway 77 near Tucson, Ariz. ADOT was making changes to that highway, the environmental group said, that would increase vehicle collisions with animals.

"It wasn't something on our radar screen at first, but the community development is happening so fast up there," Eilerts explained. "The community was screaming about all of the wildlife hits and how it impacted the land and animals in the area, which had some state parks."

The environmental bodies in his workgroup coordinated meetings with community organizations from the area to develop a strategy for expanding Highway 77 without harming wildlife.

 

Save the Animals

Many view a state's wildlife as part of its identity. Gagnon cautioned that Arizona's growing population and busy roads will affect wildlife. "Once you put a highway in an area causing an animal to not cross the road very often, you isolate it," Gagnon said. "It can't get across to resources. It becomes genetically isolated, and if you genetically isolate the animals, they start to inbreed more. Instead of having two fawns they have one or none. They're more susceptible to diseases."

Eilerts said many European countries have killed off much of their wildlife due to property development.

"They actually have toad crossings in England and butterfly crossings in Germany," Eilerts said. "Good for them, but do we [the United States] want to wait until we're down to our field mice?"

Andy Opsahl  |  Features Editor