Wildlife sightings are commonplace for anyone who spends time on Virginia’s highways. But many drivers are also all too familiar with the danger that can arise quickly when animals venture into the human-made spaces crisscrossing their habitats.
Virginia drivers have a one in 74 chance of striking an animal, according to insurance statistics compiled by State Farm, a number that consistently puts Virginia among or near the top-10 most dangerous states for vehicle-animal collisions.
But state officials are hoping to change that by requiring a more thoughtful approach to how transportation infrastructure might affect wildlife.
This year, the General Assembly passed legislation to create a Wildlife Corridor Action Plan, an effort to identify hotspots and recommend crossing projects – such as overpasses or underpasses – that might make life easier for both animals and humans.
It’s also projected to save money spent to repair damaged cars. Currently, collisions with deer alone cost an average of around $533 million per year, according to the state.
“This thing just wins on so many levels,” Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, one of the bill’s patrons, said as he presented the proposal to the legislature in February.
The bill – supported by numerous environmental and conservation groups – requires the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to collaborate over the next two years and deliver the first plan by September 2022. After that, revised plans would be due every four years.
Before proceeding with any road project, VDOT would have to include consideration of terrestrial and aquatic wildlife corridors as part of its standard environmental impact reviews. The law specifies that VDOT “shall consider measures for the mitigation of harm caused by such road to terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.”
“It just changes the philosophy and the thinking,” said Misty Boos, the executive director of the Charlottesville-based nonprofit Wild Virginia, which supported the measure.
A recent wildlife safety project on Interstate 64 west of Charlottesville demonstrated the effectiveness of basic fences.
As part of a Virginia Transportation Research Council study, officials put up a mile of eight-foot-tall fencing to try to direct wildlife to two underpasses, one beneath a bridge and another through a tunnel-like box culvert. By putting the fencing up along the highway, the hope was that animals would learn to use the safe routes under the road.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.