Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Missoula County has placed its support behind efforts to study and construct wildlife crossings in two busy transportation corridors, including Interstate 90 east of the city and Highway 93 to the north.

In letters to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the county is backing a grant application to study the feasibility of wildlife crossings and other enhancements in the Missoula to Garrison corridor.

“About one-third of that corridor is in Missoula County,” said Erik Dickson, associate director of Public Works. “It's a fair ask that we provide that letter for a planning study.”

If funded, the study will identify wildlife migration corridors to help address the movement of grizzly bears and other terrestrial wildlife, and to reduce the risk of vehicle collisions between mile markers 106 and 174 on I-90.

The study would also include the research and review of innovative technology to improve wildlife connectivity including overpasses and underpasses, wildlife detection systems and fencing, among other things.

While such improvements would benefit motorists and safe travel, it would also help bridge what's currently a major barrier to animal migration and connected habitat – and in one of the most prized ecosystems in the lower 48 states.

“Underpass and overpass wildlife crossings alone have been documented to reduce wildlife/vehicle collisions by 80% to 95%,” the county wrote. “This (study area) represents vital territory for grizzly bears. With the continual increase in the population and range expansion, safe passage for grizzly bears within movement corridors is essential to promote genetic diversity between isolated populations.”

In a separate letter, Missoula County is also backing a push by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to fund the construction of wildlife crossings on Highway 93 between Ninepipe and Post Creek, where road improvements are already planned.

As proposed, the project would create an eight-mile stretch of wildlife exclusion fencing, undercrossings and other infrastructure.

“In addition to economic damages resulting from wildlife-vehicle collisions, animal losses are felt deeply across the Tribal community, which places significant cultural value on the health of local wildlife populations,” the county wrote. “As it stands, U.S. 93 effectively bifurcates the CSKT reservation and represents a significant barrier to natural wildlife movements.”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 established a wildlife crossing safety program that includes more than just road signs. The measure included $350 million over five years to fund wildlife crossings, tunnels, fencing and other wildlife-safe infrastructure.