Crossing I-40 is dangerous for animals, but it could get safer near Smoky Mountains

Simone Jasper
·2 min read

Interstate 40 cuts through the mountainous wilderness of North Carolina and Tennessee, posing dangers for animals looking for food and other necessities.

While the interstate makes it difficult for animals to meet their basic needs, the roadway also carries the potential for deadly crashes, the Safe Passage Fund Coalition said on its website.

Now, the group said its new project aims to reduce challenges on a section of interstate that stretches 28 miles near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The effort is called Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project, a reference to the region that is home to elk, black bears and other creatures, according to wildlife advocates.

“Habitat destruction and fragmentation are particularly threatening to far-dispersing species like black bear and elk that seek seasonal breeding and foraging opportunities outside park boundaries, and collisions with these animals can be costly, dangerous or even fatal for humans,” Jeff Hunter, National Parks Conservation Association senior program manager, said Thursday in a news release.

Through its project, the coalition said it hopes to research and implement safer ways for animals to get to the other side of the interstate.

“Animals don’t recognize the invisible boundary of the national park and roam freely in and out of its borders, traveling in search of shelter, food, and mates — and, to do this, they have to first cross our roads,” Safe Passage said in its release.

Across the country, bridges, culverts and other structures have been built near highways to allow animals to move without interrupting the flow of car traffic. Wildlife crossings have grown in popularity since a 2008 federal government report estimated up to 2 million annual crashes involved large animals and cars, posing risks for both creatures and humans, McClatchy News reported.

In the Pigeon River Gorge, the coalition said more animals are dying from collisions as traffic volume rises. Possible solutions include building highway overpasses and underpasses, improving existing culverts, and erecting fences to direct animals toward those features.

Safe Passage said it’s spreading the word about the project and raising money for it. Members of the coalition include “The Conservation Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, Great Smoky Mountains Association, National Parks Conservation Association, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, and Wildlands Network,” according to officials.