OK. I am finally getting back to posting my conservation columns written for the Standard-Speaker in Hazleton, Pa., where I was once on the payroll. Here’s my latest effort.
I happened upon a nice roadside warning sign (to motorists) the other day while cruising along a state highway in northern Vermont. The sign asked me and my fellow motorists to be watchful for turtles headed across the asphalt ribbon (most likely females on their way to egg-laying places).
I have rescued dozens of turtles over the years – lifting them off two- and four-lane highways and safely leaving them on land (always in the direction they were found to be traveling in). Some memorable case-studies: an eastern box turtle crossing a rural road uphill and behind the Susquehanna nuclear power plant; an eastern mud turtle found plodding along the shoulder of highway 13, the main north-south drag on the Delmarva Peninsula; a snapping turtle rescued from the northbound lane of Route 17 in central Vermont; and another snapper found working its way along the edge of a very wet taxiway on Langley Air Force Base, Va., a decade ago.
The one-person efforts of performing rescues like these cannot, of course, stem the loss of terrestrial wildlife like turtles.
Conservationists have known this fact for years: Nothing is worse for wildlife than a road.
For decades now studies in a variety of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems have demonstrated that many of the most pervasive threats to biological diversity – our natural heritage – habitat destruction and fragmentation, edge effects, exotic species invasions, and pollution are aggravated by roads. Roads have been implicated as mortality sinks for animals ranging from snakes to wolves; as displacement factors affecting animal distribution and movement patterns; as population limiting factors; as sources of sediments that clog streams and diminish fisheries; and as access corridors that encourage development, logging and poaching of rare plants and animals.
Road-building in national forests and other public lands threatens the existence of de facto wilderness and the species that depend on wilderness. For lovers of the Big Outdoors the best places to visit today remain those fading areas categorized as “roadless.”
Despite heightened recognition (by informed people) of the harmful effects of roads, road density continues to increase in the U.S. and elsewhere. Federal, state, and local transportation departments devote huge budgets to the construction and upgrading of roads. Public land-managing agencies build thousands of miles of roads each year to support their resource extraction activities, at a net cost to the taxpayer. The U.S. Forest Service alone plans to build or reconstruct nearly 600,000 miles of roads in the next half-century. Never mind all the gasoline and greenhouse gas emissions.
Most public agencies disregard the ecological impacts of roads and attempt to justify roads built for mining and logging as benefiting recreation and wildlife management. But even when a land manager recognizes the desirability of closing roads, he or she usually contends that such closures would be unacceptable to the public.
Direct effects, such as flattened fauna, are easy to see. In contrast, many indirect effects of roads are cumulative and involve changes in community structure and ecological processes that are not well understood by the lay public. Yet, these long-term effects signal a deterioration in ecosystems that far surpasses in importance the visualimpact of a bloated deer carcass by the roadside.
Roadkill can have a significant impact on wildlife populations. The Humane Society of the U.S. and the Urban Wildlife Research Center have arrived at a conservative figure of one million animals killed each day on highways in the United States.
When Interstate 75 was completed through a major deer wintering area in northern Michigan, deer road mortality increased by 500 percent. In Pennsylvania, 26,180 deer and 90 bears were killed by vehicles in 1985. Those numbers only reflect the known casualties.
These statistics do not account for animals that crawl off the road to die after being hit. Also, roadkill statistics are invariably biased toward mammals, against reptiles, amphibians, and probably birds, and do not include invertebrates at all (who wants to count the insects smashed on windshields and grills?).
Vehicles on high-speed highways pose the greatest threat to wildlife. Unpaved roads, particularly when “unimproved,” are less dangerous. Roadkill usually increases with the volume of traffic. Increases in traffic volume do result in more collisions on any given road, and in our car-centric society more people means more cars on virtually every road. I see this daily in the bicycle-friendly state of Vermont.
In Florida, road mileage has increased by 4.6 miles per day for the last 50 years. It’s hardly a surprise then that roadkills are the leading known cause of death for all large mammals in the Sunshine State except white-tailed deer.
Seventeen Florida panthers, one of the most endangered subspecies of mammals in the world, are known to have been killed on roads there since 1972. Since 1981, 65 percent of documented Florida panther deaths have been roadkills, and the population of only about 20 individuals is unlikely to be able to sustain this pressure. An average of 41 Key deer, a species listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, were killed on roads yearly from 1980 through 1986, and 57 were killed in 1987.
Roadkill is also the leading cause of mortality for the American crocodile, also an endangered species, in south Florida. There are other case studies.
What’s wrong with roads? The watchdog organization Wildlands CPR offers this response:
– Roads harm fish and wildlife by destroying habitat;
– Roads spread weeds like Scotch broom and knapweed;
– Collapsing roads and blown-out culverts lead to erosion and water pollution;
– We have too many wildland roads. Our national forests alone have 500,000 miles of roads. That’s 12 times the size of the U.S. interstate highway network.
– Conservationist John Davis, who is trekking the East Coast now to raise money for the group Wildlands Network sums up the cost: “After a few thousand miles of riding, you begin to feel the animals’ pain. They are visible nearly every mile of road, dismembered, crushed, fur and bones strewn about, carcasses in the margins – broken bodies who once had families and felt joy and pain, like we do. We run over them by the billions.”
– You can read Davis’ late-July blog entries for his passage through Pennsylvania: www.wildlandsnetwork.org/trekeast/blog/trekeast-blog-47-roadkill-nation-pa
Lovers of the outdoors should scream in dismay whenever a developer goes before the township supervisors or borough/city council with blueprints for another road-building venture. Why? Because every new road and highway means there is less outdoors to love.