HAYWOOD COUNTY, N.C. — Video sent to Channel 9 shows a bear and her cubs trying to cross Interstate 40 in western North Carolina. Those bears made it safely across the four-lane highway, but dozens of others are struck each year along a 28-mile stretch of the interstate that runs through the Pigeon River Gorge.
A three-year study by the North Carolina Department of Transportation found there were more than 56,000 wildlife-vehicle crashes statewide during that time period, and five people died in them.
Channel 9′s Dave Faherty found out how wildlife groups and the NCDOT are trying to prevent accidents and keep wildlife from being hurt on I-40 in western North Carolina.
“We had about 125 cameras deployed throughout the 28-mile section,” Conservation Biologist Steve Goodman told Faherty.
Goodman showed Faherty where he and others with the National Parks Conservation Association placed cameras along I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge. He said the cameras, which were all within 50 meters of the interstate, captured families of black bears, an elk running under an overpass, and even a bobcat venturing too close to the four-lane highway.
Goodman said many of the bears and wildlife try to make the dangerous journey across the interstate to venture in and out of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park looking for food. They cross for other reasons too.
“Going back and forth for breeding opportunities and then younger males dispersal, that’s common throughout wildlife,” he said.
But that journey can also end tragically, with bears being killed and drivers being injured along a stretch of I-40 that averages as many as 25,000 vehicles each day.
Because of the rugged terrain there, many of the bears and other wildlife venture across the interstate at specific spots away from the cliffs in the area. One of those locations includes the Harmon Den exit, which is where the NCDOT just replaced a bridge.
But part of the project also looked at ways to help wildlife, including building two wide pathways under the interstate.
“The idea is that they’re coming down from the mountain when they want to cross this area, and then they have a place to cross that is relatively easy,” Goodman said.
The NCDOT plans to install fencing near the exit to guide wildlife to the underpass pathways. Already, Faherty could see where cattle guards have been placed along the entrance and exit ramps to keep elk from entering the highway.
Manly Fuller is with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. It’s one of several groups advocating for safe passages in the Pigeon River Gorge.
“Look at that 30-mile stretch and see where it makes the most sense to put structures in, or modify structures to facilitate wildlife movement across the interstate,” Fuller said.
Goodman showed Faherty one example where a wildlife bridge could be built across the westbound lanes of I-40. It would connect to the land above a tunnel already in place on the eastbound side. He is thankful for the work being done by the NCDOT, which he said plans to build more passages under bridges being replaced in the area.
“Look forward to the future -- we’ve got a long way to go,” Goodman said.
Just last month, the North Carolina House of Representatives appropriated $5 million in funding for infrastructure to help reduce wildlife vehicle collisions across the state.
(WATCH BELOW: 3-year construction project on NC’s Blue Ridge Parkway begins)
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