Open Spaces: Roads, Wildlife and You

Roads, Wildlife and You

By Ashley Cotter, USFWS

A new discipline might change the way the next road near you is built.

Road Ecology is the study of the affects roads have on nature and wildlife. During my internship this past summer, I got to learn a great deal about this burgeoning field - and how even I could make a difference.

John Cleckler of our Sacramento Office studies how roads impact the flora and fauna around us. He explained that their impacts sometimes aren't very obvious:

  • Roads Can Cause Behavioral Disturbances and Barriers: Animals don’t understand the concept of roads and often just follow their instincts in order to get from one place to another. Roads act as barriers to an animal’s natural habitat and can also impede human travel. If an animal wanders into traffic, it can cause a real problem for the person behind the wheel. He or she might either hit the animal (and harm it) or swerve to try to avoid hitting the animal (and harm himself or herself).
  • Roads Can Change Landscapes: Sprawl continues to be a problem for animals. While some roads were constructed years ago, increased expansion and the continual construction of new roads can have an impact on animals and their habitats. Roads change landscapes, and landscape changes can cause population changes and even affect migration routes.
  • Chemical Run Off From Roads Can Kill: Emissions from cars and other vehicles can be dangerous to animals and plants in an ecosystem. Runoff from roads can change the PH balance of nearby bodies of water and local soils. It can also cause native plants to whither in the face of invasive species, which might be more used to growing in polluted areas. Chemicals have even been known to affect amphibian breeding and cause forced evolution in salamander populations.

“Roads are like rivers of predators to all species of wildlife,” Clecker told me. This is why he feels that wildlife crossings are so important. Often built above or below roadways, they allow animals – and drivers – to pass safely from one point to another.

road-ecology(Photo: USFWS)

So what can you, a citizen and driver, do? There are actually three important steps you can take right now to mitigate the effect your driving habits might have on nature.

  • Learn – Educate yourself about the wildlife in your area, whether there are any crossings or tunnels near you, and what coming road projects would benefit from a wildlife crossing. A good place to start is Road Apple on Facebook. Knowledge is the best first step to take!

  • Report – If you live in California, you’re in luck! The California Roadkill Observation System is the first statewide roadkill reporting website. It allows the public to record observations of deceased animals with the hope of increasing knowledge about potential wildlife car collisions.

  • Support – You can always help by finding or writing grants to help fund a local project. And when you hear of a project in your area proposed to help wildlife in this way, stand up and support it.

Ashley Cotter was a summer intern in the Sacramento Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Last updated: June 21, 2012