Road ecology is a rapidly emerging discipline that grapples with surface transportation and its impacts on the environment. Banff National Park and its environs represent one of the best testing sites of innovative roadway mitigation – wildlife passages in the world. Since 1996 I have been directing long-term research assessing the impacts of highways and performance of their mitigation measures designed to reduce fragmentation of wildlife habitat. Since 2002, while continuing the Banff research and living near Canmore, Alberta, I’ve been contracted as a research wildlife biologist for the Western Transportation Institute (WTI) at Montana State University.
We have published our research results in leading international scientific journals (over 50 articles) and co-authored three books including the seminal work on this emerging discipline, Road Ecology: Science and Solutions (Island Press, 2003) and Safe Passages: Highways, Wildlife and Habitat Connectivity (Island Press, 2010). I was a member of a multidisciplinary committee established by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to review and evaluate the Effects of Highways on Natural Communities and Ecosystems. I use my findings to educate transportation professionals and wildlife ecologists as well as guide the design of other highway projects.
My research during the last 22 years has focused on developing science-based solutions to the increasing problem of expanding road systems and the conservation of landscapes and animal populations. Research into the ecological effects of roads crosses several disciplines, but relies on the successful integration of transportation engineering and conservation biology.
We have conducted empirical research on the population level benefits of more than two-dozen wildlife crossings bridging the bustling Trans-Canada Highway. Although intuitively measures of this type should enhance population viability, to date, there have been no objective studies that address their population level effects.
A pilot study was conducted in 2004-05 to develop a non-invasive hair-sampling technique used to identify individuals using the crossing structures. Subsequently, PhD candidate Mike Sawaya, Dr Steven Kalinowski and I initiated a 3-year study implementing the noninvasive technique at a landscape- and population-scale, to measure and analyse genetic parameters to restore demographic and genetic connectivity of black and grizzly bear populations in the Banff-Bow Valley. The fieldwork portion of the genetic connectivity study is completed and data analysis is currently underway.
We believe these innovations will provide a powerful, relatively inexpensive, and non-invasive way to acquire critical information regarding genetic interchange facilitated by crossings, without ever having to capture or see the animal.
our geographic location
Our research is situated in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, straddling the Continental Divide, and amongst the largest protected area complex in North America (=5 million acres: Banff, Jasper, Yoho, & Kootenay National Parks). This vast area is one of eight Priority Areas identified by Y2Y. This is the southernmost Priority Area, recognized as a being critical for harboring important source populations that can potentially disperse to and populate more fragmented and human-disturbed ecosystems to the south, east and west.
current project overview
Expanding highways and increasing vehicle traffic have been identified as one of the most severe human-caused impacts to the ecological integrity of the Rocky Mountain cordillera. The Trans-Canada Highway (TCH) in the Canadian Rocky Mountains has long been recognized as a lethal barrier to wildlife and a potential fracture zone for population connectivity at local and trans-boundary scales. Mitigation efforts over the past 25 years have essentially restored habitat connectivity across large sections of this major transportation corridor. the combined effects of an additional 30 kilometers of twinned TCH in Banff National Park with more lanes for traffic threatens to fragment and isolate transboundary populations of wide-ranging, fragmentation-sensitive species residing in the very heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The scale and magnitude of the new twinning and its measures are unprecedented. A total of 21 new crossing structures (including five 60-meter wide wildlife overpasses) are designed to mitigate these impacts by enhancing connectivity and linking habitats of key wildlife species over time. Thus, monitoring populations of wide-ranging species, such as wolverine, has been identified as a critical management objective in Banff and Yoho National Parks.
wolverines and highways
“We noticed, going straight up the fall line, the fresh tracks of an animal perhaps the size of a dog. We could not imagine what sort of creature would venture to this place so far from vegetation. At the bench our tracks diverged, the animal apparently determined to go “straight up”. - – Canadian Alpine Journal 1962
As the expansion of the TCH moves up Banff’s Bow Valley entering subalpine habitats, it becomes the first attempt ever to introduce highway mitigation at the spine of the Continental Divide. This high elevation ecosystem is doubly important given it is acutely impacted by a warming climate and it’s north-south axis is bisected by east-west transportation corridors in western North America.
Wolverines are highly sensitive to human disturbance including transportation infrastructure. They are latently becoming recognized throughout Y2Y as genuine indicators of healthy, connected ecosystems. Further, wolverines are dependent on deep snow that persists into late spring both for successful reproduction and for year-round habitat. In the last 50 years, a warming climate has resulted in permanent loss of a significant portion of wolverine habitat. Current projections are for wolverine habitat to decrease in area and become more fragmented within the foreseeable future as a result of a warming climate. In June 2011, the US Fish and Wildlife Service approved a petition to list wolverines as a threatened or endangered species.
Science has overlooked wolverines for decades. To our knowledge, there is no information regarding how this enigmatic species responds to highway mitigation measures, e.g., crossing structures, fencing, or what design attributes are critical for providing the necessary connectivity to restore their populations amidst a fragmented and rapidly disappearing habitat.
How do you design wildlife crossing infrastructure for a species that has never encountered a fenced highway or landscaped crossing structure? The need for this information is particularly acute given current Interstate highway expansion plans in the last remaining and quickly vanishing habitat for wolverines in the US Rocky Mountains. Given that the Banff highway mitigation is the first-ever within the range of wolverines in North America, our Banff research have significant and immediate implications for design of transportation systems throughout the Y2Y ecoregion. It will provide first-ever evidence-based data for this species that is fast-becoming a benchmark for large-scale connectivity throughout Y2Y.
This citizen science-based program to assist wolverine research began with seed funding from the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) to T Clevenger, B Dorsey and T Hewitt. The aim of Wolverine Watch (WW) is to add information on wolverine occurrence in the Canadian Rockies, increase awareness regarding their tenuous status, and recruit skilled and enthusiastic backcountry skiers interested in assisting us with the noninvasive genetic survey work conducted during winter.
During the course of the winter 2010-11, more than 50 people registered to assist with the noninvasive surveys. Most volunteers were from Banff and Canmore, however, some from as far away as Calgary, Alberta and Golden and Invermere, B.C. Volunteers had a range of skills and backcountry winter travel experience.