Saving Wildlife on U.S. Roads

Volunteers help decipher how motorways affect animals. 

The porcupine lay on its back, its limbs askew and its bloody rib cage split open, on River Road near Edgecomb, Maine. It had been dead for less than three hours, estimated Connie Libby after careful study. As one of 350 volunteers for the Maine Audubon Wildlife Road Watch, Libby records in an online database the creatures she sees along the road—alive or dead. The group, along with its partner project in California, aims to identify potential hot spots and help prevent collisions between wildlife and cars. 

For many species, from armadillos to endangered Florida panthers, the crashes are among the top causes of mortality. In fact, they may be the largest source of human-caused wildlife death, the Humane Society reports.

Wildlife bridges and underpasses, along with fences, can help, as they do in Canada’s Banff National Park, where scientists have seen ungulate fatalities from collisions drop by 80 percent. Earlier this year, along a 1.3-mile stretch of Route 41 in Florida that’s proven to be particularly deadly for Florida panthers, transportation workers installed a $450,000 system of motion-activated sensors linked to flashing bright LED lights on six warning signs that alert motorists to the presence of a large animal. Although dedicated critter crossings and high-tech solutions can be prohibitively expensive, there are smaller, more affordable steps that officials can take to reduce the carnage, like putting up signs that warn drivers they’re heading into an active wildlife area. The first step, though, is identifying collision sites.

That’s where extra eyes on the road come in handy. In the two years since the California and Maine observation systems launched, more than 1,000 citizen scientists have reported seeing more than 20,000 bodies. The websites, designed by biologist Fraser Shilling, co-director of the Road Ecology Center at the University of California-Davis, and colleagues, allow volunteers to upload and retrieve data, like exact sighting locations, descriptions of wildlife, and photos.

“It’s structured so that we can look at change over time, look at what’s causing roadkill, and get a better idea of what our impacts are to nature,” says Shilling. “Our system is the largest wildlife observation system in the state.” As more data pour in, each program will work with highway officials and public works departments to protect species—especially those that are endangered. 

“It’s amazing how many people this strikes a chord with,” says Barbara Charry, a wildlife biologist for Maine Audubon who launched the state’s program. She notes that highway carnage can inspire protection. “This has given them something positive to do with something so negative.”