Network of Hwy 3 wildlife crossings grows, as next phase kicks off

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Photo: Douglas Noblet / Wild Air Photography

Exclusion fencing, wildlife passages under bridges and ungulates guards are helping to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions in the Elk Valley as part of the Reconnecting the Rockies project.

Like so many grand visions, the Reconnecting the Rockies project began with a room full of passionate people and a common cause. 

In 2019, Duane Wells, then the regional manager for environmental services at the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, was inspired after attending a meeting of conservation groups and wildlife experts to discuss the growing issue of wildlife and vehicle collisions in British Columbia’s Elk Valley. On average, 39 road kills — from grizzly bears to elk, wolverines, bighorn sheep and deer — are reported each year along a 27 kilometre stretch of Highway 3, between Hosmer, B.C., and the Alberta border, although the true, unreported number is likely much higher.

Aside from the impact on wildlife populations and connectivity, as well as human safety, these collisions cost society at least $1.5 million per year through insurance claims. With the volume of traffic growing every year, it was clear to everyone that a solution was needed, and quickly. Enter: wildlife crossings.

At the 2019 meeting, Duane heard a proposal, put together by the Miistakis Institute and local wildlife biologist Clayton Lamb, for a large-scale wildlife connectivity project using a combination of underpasses, overpasses and fencing. The proposal identified priority crossing locations based on ecological importance, prevalence of road kills and feasibility. For Duane, it seemed like a no-brainer — the big question was how to fund it.

“If I’d gone to my higher ups at that point and said, ‘listen, I need $12 million dollars’, I would’ve been laughed out of the office,” Duane says. So the team began shaking trees and cobbling together funds available through the Ministry’s Preservation Program, ICBC, Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program, Habitat Conservation Trust Fund and Together for Wildlife. 

“Soon, I had enough to buy a few fence posts. Eventually, I was able to squirrel enough away that I could hire an excavator to create a trail underneath Loop Bridge. From there, the project started gaining momentum and coming together,” he says. 

Promising early results

Five years on, the Reconnecting the Rockies project is well underway thanks to the work of a team that now comprises Duane, Wildsight, the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative, project scientists Dr Clayton Lamb and Emily Chow, and Miistakis Institute biologist Tracy Lee. So far, three bridges (Loop Bridge, Alexander Bridge and Carbon Creek Bridge) have been retrofitted with wildlife underpasses, and 2 km of exclusion fencing has been put up connecting the Loop and Carbon Creek crossings. 

Alexander Bridge underpasses – one completed and the other side under construction.

Though it’s still early days for the project, the results so far are promising, according to Clayton. “Our motion-sensor cameras detected around a two-to threefold increase in wildlife traffic through those underpasses after the fence went up,” Clayton says. “That tells us the fence is doing its job and funnelling wildlife toward the crossings, rather than just blocking their path.”

Clayton’s cameras have detected everything from black bears and grizzly bears, to elk, lynx, mule and white-tailed deer, and even an inconspicuous badger. For local wildlife populations and connectivity, it’s great news. 

An elk crosses under Loop Bridge.

Collisions a major problem for elk and grizzly populations

The Elk Valley holds the unenviable title of being one of the deadliest places in North America for grizzly bears. By following dozens of collared grizzly bears, Clayton learned that about a quarter of grizzly bear deaths in the valley occur on the highway, with many of them being younger bears that have less experience navigating roads. The Elk Valley’s grizzly population is stable only because of immigrant grizzlies dispersing in from neighbouring wild areas, like the Flathead Valley. “If it weren’t for those immigrants, we would have far fewer bears here,” Clayton says.

A multi-year elk study supported by the Sparwood Fish and Wildlife Association and Teck Coal that Clayton was involved in shows similar stats for local elk populations. Elk numbers have more than halved in the Elk Valley over the past four decades, from over 4,000 in 1984 to around 1,700 in 2021, with highway and railway collisions contributing to that decline.

Connectivity is also a major concern. Aside from itself holding one of the greatest assemblages of large mammals in North America, the Elk Valley sits in the middle of a major wildlife connectivity corridor for animals moving between the United States and the greater Canadian Rockies. The highway both disconnects habitats, and kills animals trying to disperse from other areas. “So, if you’re a wolverine coming up from Montana making this big break for Canada, you might die on Highway 3, and that mortality creates a genetic fracture between populations,” Clayton explains. 

Similar wildlife collision mitigation projects in Alberta, Montana and Washington have reduced wildlife mortality rates by more than 80%, and the Reconnecting the Rockies team hopes to replicate those results. 

What’s next for Reconnecting the Rockies?

Once complete, the team aims to have constructed 11 wildlife crossings over six phases, all connected by exclusion fencing, making it amongst the largest projects of its kind in British Columbia. 

Completed projects now include Loop Bridge, Alexander Bridge and Carbon Creek Bridge.

Phase 2, which is expected to be completed by the end of this summer, will see two more underpasses go in under Old Town and Michel Mouth bridges, fencing between the Carbon and Alexander underpasses, and ungulate guards at Fir Road and Gun Range Road.   

Although the team has moved well beyond buying individual fence posts, budgeting issues still loom large. The Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure has committed $500,000 a year to the project for its duration, “but that money isn’t going as far as it used to,” Duane says. Multi-million-dollar contributions from Teck and Parks Canada have helped a lot. Ultimately though, the team will need to secure around $30 million to construct the project’s most ambitious element: an overpass east of Sparwood, between Alexander Creek Bridge and Alexander-Michel. 

The Alexander-Michel overpass would allow for safe wildlife passage in a critical movement corridor.

“It’s going to take some time to find that kind of money,” Duane says. “But that’s the great thing about breaking the project down into discrete parts — they don’t necessarily all need to happen sequentially. We’ll keep chipping away at the other crossings with what we’ve got, and in the meantime, we’ll be knocking on doors and doing what we can to find those funds.”

Want to help? Show your support

Never underestimate the power of gratitude. If you’d like to support the Reconnecting the Rockies project, send a simple thank you note to the Hon. Rob Fleming, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure. 

Send your email to: Minister.Transportation@gov.bc.ca

Exclusion fencing between Loop Bridge and Carbon Bridge.
Jumpouts allow animals to safely exit the highway if needed, while precluding animals from
jumping into the highway.
Progress so far: 2 km of highway fenced, 3 underpasses retrofitted, 1 ungulate guard installed.