Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Western Montana has several wildlife crossing structures, thanks to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and a Legislative bill that would leverage federal funds could help add a few more.

On Tuesday afternoon, the House Fish, Wildlife & Parks committee heard testimony for and then voted to pass House Bill 887, sponsored by Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings.

The bill would allow the state to take advantage of $350 million - set aside by the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act - designated for building crossing structures to help wildlife traverse America’s busy highways and roads. The bill would allow either the state Department of Transportation or local governments to propose projects to receive the money.

States have to compete to get the federal money, and they have to have their own money to take advantage of the 4:1 match. So HB 887 would have Montana create a one-time allocation of $1 million to allow it to get $4 million in federal grant money.

Other Western states are anteing up far more to take advantage during the five years the money is available. Colorado allocated $5 million while Utah is putting up four times that, according to Peggy Trenk, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation lobbyist.

Eight people rose to speak in support of the bill, including Amy Gromolez from the Property and Casualty Insurance Association, who said more wildlife crossings would reduce the number of deaths and $8 billion in damage that occur on America’s highways every year.

Shane Scanlon of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said Montana has the second highest number of wildlife-vehicle collisions in the nation, according to the most recent State Farm Insurance report. Part of that is because Montana is still home to an abundance of wildlife, but also the number of people moving in or passing through the state is growing so more people are speeding down the roads.

“Highways are becoming more crowded, and there are highways in the western part of the state where I don’t know an animal gets across without getting hit. It’s just traffic, traffic, traffic,” said Greg Munther of the Montana Sportsmen’s Alliance.

No one opposed the bill. But MDT financial officer Larry Flynn, who said he was just an informational witness, made some inaccurate and disparaging remarks about the bill, including emphasizing that the money set aside by the bill wasn’t part of Governor Greg Gianforte’s budget.

Zolnikov said the money had been under consideration as part of the Legislature’s budget. But about a week ago, the appropriations subcommittee voted to split the money out of appropriations and put it into its own bill and Zolnikov agreed to sponsor it.

“They decided it should go through a policy committee as well as making it down to appropriations. So this has already been vetted by some of our other colleagues in the budget world,” Zolnikov said. “It was mentioned that this is not in the governor’s budget, which I thought was interesting. There are quite a few bills that we vote on as legislators that are not in the governor’s budget. So I’m not sure why that was mentioned.”

Republican Reps. Gary Parry of Colstrip and Ed Butcher of Winifred asked about the costs of crossing structures and whether any were under consideration now.

David Smith of the Montana Contractors Association said a wildlife overpass runs about $1 million, although underpasses - large culverts or bridges - cost less. In Montana, the vast majority of crossings are underpasses with the only overpass being on the Flathead Reservation.

Even though Flynn said the federal crossing money was “just a distraction,” the 41 underpasses on the Flathead Reservation wouldn’t have been built without federal funding, because MDT doesn’t have the extra funds to pay for wildlife crossings. Even so, MDT opposed the bonding for the Flathead Reservation project, which Governor Judy Martz finally pushed through in the early 2000s.

The existing structures were built between 2005 and 2010, but a 10-mile stretch of Highway 93 through the Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area remains unfinished due to a lack of funds.

East of Bozeman, biologist Lance Craighead has been lobbying to get crossing structures beneath Interstate 90 to enable wildlife to move between the Greater Yellowstone and points north. His 10-year study found that 2,300 animals met their end on a 23-mile stretch of the highway.

Craighead was able to get one structure at Bear Canyon in the mid-2000s because MDT was already rebuilding a bridge there. And that’s the problem with MDT - it won’t build a crossing structure unless it’s concurrently working on a road project.

Another snag is that land on both sides of a road have to be either public land or land with conservation easements because MDT doesn’t want to build a crossing that could funnel wildlife into a future subdivision.

In December 2018, Montana held its first Wildlife and Transportation Summit specifically to come up with ideas for funding, since several projects were in limbo. Attendees explored methods to raise private funding but more federal funding could ease those efforts.

MDT still has a webpage for the Montana Wildlife and Transportation Partnership, but little has happened since the summit. Flynn said he couldn’t name any current MDT projects but said the department is looking for opportunities to build structures all the time.

The Center for Large Landscape Conservation investigations show there’s an 86% to 97% decrease in collisions. For example, along Colorado’s Highway 9, between 2016 and 2021, the number of carcasses in the project area decreased by 89%.

The committee took executive action on the bill Tuesday night, voting 13-6 to pass the bill.

Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, claimed crossing structures don’t work, based on his experience as a biologist working on road collisions. But Fielder’s main biological experience comes from working for the Chelan, Wash., Public Utility District from 1982 to 2006 where he did a lot of trapping for the PUC.

Other legislators pushed back, saying the science is clear that crossing structures do work.

“I know the wildlife biologists at (the University of Montana) that study them with camera traps and it’s pretty well documented,” said Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula. “It makes sense not to leave money on the table.”

The committee also passed HB846 to improve the odds of Montanans getting a Smith River permit. But by a vote of 12-7, it voted down HB826, which would have eliminated a program to have prison inmates raise pheasants using FWP money.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at