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Safe Passage: Humans Need to Help Animals Crossing Highways in WNC

For wildlife whose ancestors have traversed our landscapes for centuries in search of food, mates, and territory,

this is not the question. Their instinct is to continue moving across age-old geographical paths. But humans have made this natural migration more and more difficult by fragmenting large sections of protected forest, bisecting them with huge roads fraught with heavy, fast-moving vehicles. 

The resulting rise in collisions with large mammals has become a serious concern not only for conservation, but also for human safety, economics and culture. 

“No one wants to hit an animal with their vehicle.” ~ Jeff Hunter, National Parks Conservation Association

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 growth and an increasing human population in the area, this already dire situation will only get worse without proper, careful mitigation.

In the last 16 years, there has been a 43% increase in traffic volume along Interstate 40 in the Pigeon River Gorge, which runs through this wild and scenic area bridging the two states. More than 26,000 vehicles pass through the 28-mile stretch of highway each day.

This corridor, which connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to other wild and public lands in the area, is home to large populations of black bear, elk, deer, bobcats, coyotes and other species both large and small. Furthermore, projected movements of climate-driven species suggest there will soon be a high concentration of animals migrating through southeastern North America into the Appalachians.

Driven by a desire to see beautiful, pristine landscapes and the wildlife harbored within, more than 12.5 million people visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year, with many more visiting the region as a whole. But the animals of the national park don’t recognize invisible boundaries, roaming freely in and out of its borders.

Just like us, they travel in search of shelter, food and mates — and, to do this, they have to first cross our roads.

The I-40 corridor, like many other roadways around the nation, is fragmenting these species’ habitat, creating a “barrier effect” that separates wildlife from their needs. Habitat destruction and fragmentation are particularly threatening to far-dispersing species like black bear and elk that seek seasonal breeding and foraging opportunities outside park boundaries.

Home, food and family often lie on the other side of the highway, and choosing not to cross can lead to the decreased health of entire populations — or even extirpation. But for each individual animal, crossing can also mean death.

Reducing mortality and lessening the barrier effect within the I-40 corridor is paramount to increasing the safe flow of animals in and out of the national park and to adjacent public lands. The first step to mitigation is gaining an understanding of how these animals navigate the landscape.

Learn More & Donate: Safe Passage

"Safe Passage: Animals Need a Hand" Dec 10, 2021


Take a journey with Asheville, NC, band The Fates as they empathetically imagine what it would be like to be an animal trying to cross highways near the Smokies. Directed by Joe Lamirand, this music video features Lexi McGraw as the bear, Natalie Karrh as the deer, and Bella Wells-Fried as the elk. The band formed while attending The Odyssey School in Asheville, and their teacher River Guerguerian helped them to arrange the song, produced and engineered the recording, and is heard on hybrid percussion kit. Inspired by her work with Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project, Frances Figart wrote the song to go with her book, A Search for Safe Passage, published in 2021 by Great Smoky Mountains Association. She produced this video and dedicates it to all the human beings working across the globe to help animals find safer ways to cross roads.

WNC Times: Marjorie Farrington: 

Wnctimes shares this information and video with hope it helps people realize just how much animals really do need a hand. Dec 17, 2021

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