Enviro groups ask Buttigieg for help with I-90 wildlife corridor
(Missoula Current) The Montana Department of Transportation is planning to erect fencing along a section of Interstate Highway 90, effectively blocking wildlife migration, so wildlife advocates are asking the federal government for help.
A coalition of 21 organizations sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg last week asking him to support several biologists in Montana who are trying to oppose a state government plan to erect 11 miles of exclusion fence along I-90 between the Helmville cutoff and Gold Creek east of Drummond. The coalition asked Buttigieg to provide funding and support for the biologists’ proposal to install warning devices rather than fencing.
“This situation offers a unique opportunity for a State-Federal Pilot Project with involvement from State and Federal grizzly bear and other wildlife experts who would gather new information to compare with the baseline data and other crossing structures,” the letter said.
On April 5, five highly-qualified biologists sent a letter to Ben Nunallee, MDT Missoula District preconstruction engineer, voicing concern about MDT’s choice of alternatives outlined in its I-90 Jens Safety Improvements Final Feasibility Study Report. MDT chose Alternative 3A, which would install 11 miles of high fence on either side of the highway.
The biologists - including Hilary Cooley, Mike McGrath and Jennifer Fortin-Noreus of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Cecily Costello and Jamie Jonkel of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks - said Alternative 3A “will have disproportionate impacts to wildlife connectivity because of the ecological importance of this area.”
“Montana is facing unprecedented levels of development, and natural landscapes supporting connectivity such as the Jens area are becoming more and more important for wildlife. Therefore, actions that actively exclude wildlife from crossing in these areas is especially concerning,” the biologists wrote.
The interstate highway bisects a wide, undeveloped, valley-bottom area separating low hills to the north from the Clark Fork River to the south. Such open land provides crucial wildlife connectivity, which is why wildlife is often present.
Grizzly bears in particular are beginning to try to cross I-90 at that section. The biologists described the travels of the grizzly bear nicknamed “Lingenpolter” as he tried dozens of times to cross that section of I-90 in 2020 and 2021.
“Given that the current grizzly bear occupied range includes resident bears in the Helmville area, and numerous verified sightings in the area surrounding the Big Hole River, it is conceivable that other grizzly bears have also crossed I-90 in the Jens area. As occupied range expands south, the potential for connectivity will become greater, but an exclusion fence without crossing structures will significantly stifle this potential,” the biologists wrote.
Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and federal courts have required that agencies prove grizzly bears can migrate between recovery zones to ensure genetic exchange before the species could be delisted. The addition of barriers would hinder that.
Locals are aware of the elk herd that often crosses that section of I-90. In the past, the state has deployed electronic message boards to warn drivers of wildlife crossing. But MDT decided to look at other options.
In the August 2021 feasibility study prepared by Missoula-based WGM Group, the authors recommended an initial phase of improvements that included 11 miles of exclusion fence and accompanying structures such as wildlife escape ramps but no wildlife crossing structures. The study noted that the presence of feed in the hayfields next to I-90 causes elk to move across that section of highway. The cost was estimated at $4.8 million.
But the five biologists say that the existing highway crossing points are inadequate to nonexistent.
“The stream and ditch channels under the interstate are mostly small culverts barely large enough for a beaver. The stock way is small and heavily fenced on both sides; and the bridge span sites along the county roads offer minimal passage. Even with extensive fencing funneling wildlife to these sites, crossing is unlikely. The passages are just too small and too far apart,” the biologists wrote. “Exclusion fencing without crossing structures that are capable of passing all species will not create safer passage for wildlife; it will fracture a landscape that is currently providing passage at-grade across the highway.”
In their letter, the environmental groups pointed out that the feasibility study listed 58 elk crashes between 2009 and 2018, 54 of which resulted in vehicle damage only. The vast majority of collisions occurred at mile marker 160.
“While we support efforts to improve human safety, Project data show approximately 6 elk a year are involved in vehicle collisions, which does not justify 11 miles of wildlife exclusion fencing,” the environmental groups wrote.
The biologists have asked MDT to forgo the exclusion fence and instead install rumble strips at every mile across the 11 mile section of highway, paired with flashing signs to alert drivers to wildlife. They say that solution is better for wildlife and less costly than fencing.
Wildlife crossing structures can have a high price tag, and MDT has often said its funding for crossing structures was limited. Prior to the Gianforte administration, MDT was working with FWP and wildlife organizations to try to come up with possible funding sources, including private donations.
However, the Gianforte administration has not continued that work, even though it could reward the governor's desire to delist the grizzly.
During the recent Legislative session, MDT was dismissive of a bill sponsored by Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings, that would have allowed the state to take advantage of $350 million set aside by the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for building crossing structures. The bill would have allowed either MDT or local governments to propose projects to receive the money. Such money could have helped build or improve crossing structures across I-90.
But during hearings, MDT financial officer Larry Flynn, who said he was just an informational witness, remarked negatively on the bill and emphasized that the money set aside by the bill wasn’t part of Gianforte’s budget. The House Fish, Wildlife & Parks committee passed the bill, but then it died when it was tabled in the House appropriations committee.
Even though Flynn was unwilling to accept federal funding, the environmental coalition has asked Buttigieg to coordinate on an expedited funding proposal. They pointed to a new policy created in March by the White House Council on Environmental Quality that emphasizes maintaining ecological connectivity and wildlife corridors. The policy recommends “avoiding or minimizing adverse impacts that would fragment habitat identified as a priority for connectivity or corridors” and “removing, modifying or avoiding the installation of barriers to wildlife movement along migratory routes.”
The coalition included the Endangered Species Coalition, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Wilderness Watch, Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, Missoula for Bears, Footloose Montana, Swan View Coalition and Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, among others.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.