Week-long Summer Camp Introduces Kids to Transportation Planning

A young boy peers over the steering wheel of a driving simulator.In August, twenty-four Montana middle school students participated in WTI’s weeklong Summer Transportation Camp, held at Salish Kootenai College (SKC) in Pablo, Montana. The camp introduced participants to a wide range of transportation and STEM topics. Students were able to pick out a bike from Free Cycle bike kitchen in Missoula, which they used to sharpen their bike repair skills, and learned to ride safely during a bike rodeo and a helmet drop demonstration and design competition. Campers also developed high-tech skills, like circuit construction and coding, through a hands-on project – using an Arduino to design a traffic control system. They were also able to test drive SKC’s driving simulator, where they attempted to avoid dangerous road conditions from the safety of the lab.

Active Commuting Options Abound for Bozeman’s Elementary Schoolers

An ongoing collaboration between WTI, the City of Bozeman, and three Bozeman elementary schools is ensuring children develop valuable bike and walking skillsets, while also enjoying the outdoors with friends. As of last April, students from Hyalite and Meadowlark Elementary Schools have been meeting their classmates at a local park to collectively walk or bike the rest of the way to school while accompanied by an adult. They then repeat the process, in reverse, at the end of the school day. These “walking school buses” and “bike trains” are popping up all over the Gallatin Valley and are designed to not only decrease school-related traffic but to prepare students for the school day through physical activity, which improves concentration and focus.

Walking school buses and bike trains are part of the City of Bozeman’s reinvestment in the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) methodology, which was originally developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation and encourages bicycling and walking to school through education, infrastructure improvements, and incentives. As part of their support, the City of Bozeman supplies two Parks and Recreation staff members to accompany students to and from school. In the afternoons, the Walking School Bus is combined with the Bozeman Rec Mobile, giving Hyalite and Meadowlark students an opportunity to enjoy extended, supervised outdoor recreation time after school. This service is helpful to working parents because pick-up time can be as late as 5 pm.

The popularity of the walking school buses has led to the foundation of a similar bike train program at Morning Star Elementary. Students meet at Tuckerman Park in the morning and ride the two-mile route to school.  “When the weather is nice, around 30 people participate,” explains Jen MacFarlane, the WTI Safe Routes to School Coordinator. “It’s a huge success. But like any community programming, there are sustainability challenges.”

Unlike the walking school buses at Hyalite and Meadowlark, the Morning Star bike train relies entirely on parent and teacher volunteers and requires effort to maintain as work and school schedules fill up. “These programs are far more likely to succeed if they have leadership support. Morning Star’s Principal, Will Dickerson, along with the Health Enhancement teacher, Susan Atkinson, champion the Morning Star bike train – actively encouraging participation in school announcements, the parent newsletter, anywhere they talk with students and potential volunteers,” notes Jen. “That’s one of the reasons it’s so successful.”

Jen encourages those looking to start their own bike train, walking school bus, or other Safe Routes to School program to foster support from their school leadership. “Not all programming feels right to all principals and superintendents; Gallatin High School has decided to try School Pool, a new carpool platform to decrease the number of cars driven to school.  Whereas, Monforton School in Four Corners has been supporting safe infrastructure and walk/bike to school events for the last five years.” Jen adds, “Many options exist – there’s a Safe Routes to School program to appeal to everyone.”

In the meantime, the Hyalite and Meadowlark walking school buses will be available year-round. If you are interested in coordinating a walking school bus or bike train at your child’s school, please contact Jen MacFarlane at jennifer.macfarlane@montana.edu.

New Study Identifies Potential Animal Highway Crossing Locations Across Western U.S.

Image of elk near entrance of a wildlife underpass
Elk approaches wildlife underpass in Banff National Park (courtesy of Tony Clevenger)

Increasingly busy highways and fragmented habitats have boosted the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions (WVCs) in the U.S. each year. Dangerous to both animals and humans, these collisions kill more than one million large mammals and hundreds of humans per year and cause tens of thousands of injuries. To begin addressing these collisions, the nonprofit Center for Large Landscape Conservation, Western Transportation Institute, and Dr. David Theobald with Conservation Planning Technologies have published the West-Wide Study to Identify Important Highway Locations for Wildlife Crossings. It pinpoints the highest rated road segments in 11 western states to consider for future wildlife crossings, which would offset collision costs, address conservation needs, and provide for human safety.

The study is also innovative, integrating ecological, economic, and safety considerations rather than choosing locations based on WVC hotspots alone when considering highways across the West. It is also one of the first studies to look at all western states with a consistent, regional approach – allowing for state-to-state comparison. The study is designed to complement and supplement state-wide and local analyses that use finer-scale data, which helps federal and state agencies and other stakeholders focus on areas where wildlife crossings can be deployed.

According to the study’s findings, WVCs with species like deer cost a minimum of $1.6 billion per year in the western U.S. It also identifies potential wildlife crossing structure locations that could not only mitigate impacts to human and animal safety but entirely offset the cost of WVCs by driving down crash rates and their cost to society.

The study comes at a time of increased interest, momentum, and policies for building wildlife crossings and implementing other mitigation measures in the U.S., including $350 million in federal funding from the Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program, part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The three main components of the study are available online and include the full report containing both the West-wide analysis and 11 individual state analyses, plus a mapping website where users can examine the results at a variety of scales, select different map layers of interest, and download the data.

MSU Graduate Investigates Presence of Monarch Butterflies and Other Pollinators in Roadside Habitats

Monarch butterfly on orange flower
Source: MS Word Image Library

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), the striking and iconic orange and black insects of postcards and motivational posters, have been in population decline since the 1980s and Thomas Meinzen, a master’s student in Montana State University’s Ecology Department, turned to a largely overlooked environment to save them. His thesis, Bees and Butterflies in Roadside Habitats: Identifying Patterns, Protecting Monarchs, and Informing Management, investigated the value of highway rights-of-way (ROWs) for pollinator, especially monarch, conservation. Supported by the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD), the project evaluated undeveloped land that parallels many roads for its potential to sustain western US monarch migrations and determined the variety of other pollinator species that used its native and non-native plants.

Thomas was advised by MSU Ecology Department Head, Dr. Diane Debinski, a butterfly specialist, in partnership with fellow ecology professor Dr. Laura Burkle, a bee specialist, and WTI’s Road Ecology Program Manager, Rob Ament. He surveyed 910 miles of southeast Idaho highways for the presence of monarchs and identified the number and location of showy milkweed patches (Asclepias speciosa – the obligate host plant of monarch larva). Thomas also noted the abundance and variety of other butterflies, bees, and native and non-native plants found in the roadside habitats.

The researchers were surprised to find that showy milkweed was quite common along SE Idaho highways, while monarch butterfly numbers had decreased alarmingly in 2021 and 2022. They were also surprised that bee variety and quantity was higher in secondary highway roadsides compared to primary and interstate ROWs, as well as areas dominated by native plants.

“Our study found that areas with diverse native flora and sagebrush steppe, in particular,” said Dr. Debinski, “had significantly higher bee richness and abundance than other sites.” At the same time, the abundance of butterflies depended almost entirely on the number of flowering plants, native or not.

The field study also developed roadside management recommendations to help insects overcome the downside of living and breeding in the ROWs. “Collisions with vehicles, pollutants, herbicides, insecticides, and disturbance caused by management practices were all hazards associated with bee and butterfly use of roadsides,” explained Dr. Debinski. “One of the goals of this research was to understand the best way to manage those areas for pollinators.” This is particularly true for monarchs, which are experiencing critically low population numbers, cannot afford to lay eggs or have their larva feed on plants that will be cut or sprayed in the middle of their lifecycle.

“Bees and Butterflies in Roadside Habitats” expressed concern that roadside habitats could become traps, luring pollinators in with healthy ecosystems and then collapsing population numbers through highway management practices or pollution. To avoid creating a population sink, the report recommended a suite of good practices, from protecting all roadside milkweed patches from herbicides and mowing, mowing smaller portions of the ROW with less frequency and never after flowering, and using pollinator-safe mowers, to spot treating weeds rather than applying herbicides to the entire roadside.

Overall, the research revealed that land along southeast Idaho highways, particularly those with lower traffic levels, was supporting a wide variety of pollinators and could provide an important role in pollinator conservation. “This is one of those areas in road ecology that is finally receiving the attention it is due, particularly given 85% of all agricultural crops require pollinators,” commented Rob Ament.

However, further research is required. “We need to figure out if roadsides are contributing to pollinator population growth or decline overall,” noted Dr. Debinski. “Future research should also determine whether roadside habitats act as corridors for pollinator dispersal; a catchy idea, but one that needs support from more data.”