Animal Crossing: New Research Guides Efforts to Protect California’s Amphibians and Reptiles from Road Danger

A Yosemite toad looks through mesh fencing alongside a road used to mitigate negative road impacts and guide amphibians towards safe passages.
A Yosemite toad looks through mesh fencing alongside a road used to mitigate negative road impacts and guide amphibians towards safe passages. (Credit: Cheryl Brehme, USGS Western Ecological Research Center. Public domain.)

Companion video shows underground crossing structures in action

Roads can be dangerous for California’s reptiles and amphibians, but a five-year study and new video show that there are effective strategies to help these animals cross roads safely.   

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) released the results of the study this week in a comprehensive, evidence-based best practices guide that explains approaches and techniques for minimizing the impact of roads on fragile and diminishing habitats and species, including frogs, toads, salamanders, turtles, lizards and snakes.  

The best practices guide is the first of its kind for amphibian and reptile management and conservation near California roads.

“It is no longer a case of putting a few pipes and fences into the ground with a ‘fit and forget’ approach,” said Tom Langton of Herpetofauna Consultants International, Ltd., primary author on the guidance document. “This guide offers resource managers in California opportunities and a clear plan to improve existing crossings and build new ones to better standards where they are most needed. The guidance should be valued in other states with similar wildlife-road issues and at the international level, too.” 

Many reptile and amphibian species must cross roads to reach essential breeding and foraging habitat, are slow moving or are too small for drivers to see and avoid. Snakes and lizards may also be attracted to paved roads that typically absorb and retain heat.  All these behaviors put them at high risk of vehicle collisions.  

“We have a responsibility to maintain the highway system in a way that doesn’t impede or disrupt wildlife, including the movement of California’s threatened and endangered reptile and amphibian species,” said Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin. “This study allows us to analyze feasible and effective ways Caltrans can use ecologically-minded design to minimize impacts on these wildlife populations.”    

Traditionally, transportation agencies and wildlife managers have installed structures to help amphibians, reptiles and other small animals cross highways safely, such as tunnels under roads or barrier fencing.

“While agencies have made significant investments in these structures for many years, there has been little research into how effective they are,” said Dr. Robert Fisher, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) supervisory ecologist involved in the study. “Management guidance informed by science is needed to help ensure this critical infrastructure is safe for sensitive species.”  

With these concerns in mind, the goals of the collaborative project were to address this information gap using a logical framework and to help transportation agencies like Caltrans plan barrier and crossing structures more effectively. 

To help Caltrans determine which reptile and amphibian species to prioritize, USGS scientists created a ranking system for more than 160 species and sub-species, based on their vulnerability to road dangers. Turtles, tortoises and snakes dominated the highest risk category. USGS also developed a mapping system to allow Caltrans to easily find where the ranges of high-risk species overlap with California highways and statewide conservation efforts. Species ranked high and very-high risk of negative road-related impacts include desert tortoise, California red-legged frog, sierra newt and red diamond rattlesnake, among others.  

Then, in a series of field experiments, the USGS scientists investigated how reptiles and amphibians interact with different types of fencing, how far high-risk migrating amphibians move along road barrier fencing before “giving up” or finding a passage, and the effectiveness of turnarounds at fence ends.  

“We were happy to find that turnarounds at barrier fence ends were largely effective in changing the trajectory of many species to help lead them back toward a passage,” said Cheryl Brehme, the USGS project lead. A new video by USGS shows a California tiger salamander successfully make it to an underground crossing after being guided by one of these turnarounds. 

USGS and partners also designed and tested of a new type of passage structure called an elevated road segment.

“The elevated road-segment is really exciting,” said Brehme, “because it can be made to any width and length enabling reptiles, amphibians and other small wildlife species to freely move back and forth across wide stretches of roadway.” 

Caltrans used the results of these combined studies to produce the best management practices guide, which will inform the work of district biologists and engineers and will likely be useful to many other organizations involved in the planning and construction of transportation infrastructure. USGS has also released a comprehensive report of its studies in conjunction with the new guidance document.  

The guide emphasizes that different landscapes – and different species – need a range of solutions, and the needs of different species and their numbers will influence positioning and sizes.

“Planning for smaller rare species calls for designs that take into account the sensitivities and needs of these understudied and often forgotten species” said Dr. Tony Clevenger of Western Transportation Institute, who led the development of the best management practices guide. The best practices guide was produced for Caltrans by the Western Transportation Institute of Montana State University with Herpetofauna Consultants International, Ltd and is based on existing knowledge and foundational studies by the U.S. Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center. 

Graphic logos for Caltrans, Western Transportation Institute, USGS and Herpetofauna Consultants International, who are partners in the best practices guide for amphibian reptile road crossings.

CONTACTS

California Department of Transportation (Caltrans)
Amy Bailey, Supervising Environmental Planner

Amy.Bailey@dot.ca.gov

Luz Quinnell, Senior Environmental Planner
Luz.Quinnell@dot.ca.gov

Western Transportation Institute
Tony Clevenger, Senior Research Scientist
apclevenger@gmail.com

Herpetofauna Consultants International, Ltd
Tom Langton, Ecological Consultant
TL@Langtonuk.co.uk

USGS Western Ecological Research Center
Cheryl Brehme, Biologist
cbrehme@usgs.gov

Robert Fisher, Supervisory Research Biologist
rfisher@usgs.gov

FOR MORE INFORMATION: KEY DOCUMENTS

Langton, T.E.S. and A.P. Clevenger. 2021. Measures to Reduce Road Impacts on Amphibians and Reptiles in California. Best Management Practices and Technical Guidance. Prepared by Western Transportation Institute for California Department of Transportation, Division of Research, Innovation and System Information. https://westerntransportationinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/4W5589_BMP_Impact_Reduction_Amphibians-Reptiles_Ca-20210226-LR_rev.pdf

WTI Project Webpage: https://westerntransportationinstitute.org/research_projects/california-sensitive-reptile-and-amphibian-highway-crossings/

Brehme, C.S. and R.N. Fisher 2021. Research to Inform Caltrans Best Management Practices for Reptile and Amphibian Road Crossings.  USGS Cooperator Report to California Department of Transportation, Division of Research, Innovation and System Information. 65A0553. https://dot.ca.gov/-/media/dot-media/programs/environmental-analysis/documents/final-caltrans-usgs-report-herproadresearch-rev.pdf

Langton, T.E.S., and Clevenger, A.P. 2017. Amphibian and Reptile Highway Crossings: State of the practice, gap analysis and decision support tool. Report prepared for the State of California, Department of Transportation, Division of Research and Innovation, Office of Materials and Infrastructure Research, June 2017.
https://westerntransportationinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/4W5589_Lit_Review_amphib-reptile-crossings_3July2017.pdf

Brehme, C.S., Hathaway, S.A. & Fisher, R.N. An objective road risk assessment method for multiple species: ranking 166 reptiles and amphibians in California. Landscape Ecol 33, 911–935 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-018-0640-1

U.S.G.S. Turnaround, Salamander! (outreach video) 2021. https://www.usgs.gov/media/videos/turn-around-salamander

NPS Plans Safety Improvements Based on WTI Study

Report Cover for George Washington Memorial Parkway Safety Assessment with photos of pedestrian and cyclists sharing road with vehicles

Along a historic parkway in Virginia, the National Park Service (NPS) will soon begin improvements to enhance safety for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.  In a recent news release, the NPS announced planned safety measures for the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which runs along the Potomac River near George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate.  The Parkway serves recreational and tourism users, as well as a growing number of commuters, which has led to increased congestion and safety challenges.

The recommended improvements stem from a major safety assessment conducted by WTI and Mead & Hunt on behalf of the Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division (EFLHD) of USDOT. The GWMP Traffic and Safety Context Sensitive Solutions Assessment, led by Principal Investigator Natalie Villwock-Witte, studied traffic conditions and crashes at nine intersections on the Parkway, then developed individual recommendations for each. Proposed alternatives were designed to enhance safety, while maintaining the character of a national park setting. The full report is available on the project webpage.

Cyclist and pedestrian cross tree-lined parkway near vehicles

Student Research Opportunities: Five Positions Available with Bozeman Commute Rebrand Project

Summary: The Western Transportation Institute (WTI) is seeking five MSU students for part-time, paid positions to support the development and implementation of a project to rebrand a local, online commuter platform.  Seeking students in marketing, graphic design, engineering, public health and sustainability.  Apply by November 13th, 2020.

Background

Logo for Bozeman Commuter project including tagline Rethink Transportation

Many people who work in Bozeman live far away due to high housing costs, resulting in long and expensive commutes. BozemanCommute.org is an online platform hosted by RideAmigos launched in 2018 in part to help people find more affordable commute options. However, the Bozeman Commute platform receives relatively limited use.  The Bozeman Commute Rebrand, social marketing and programs/outreach project will engage MSU students and partners from different sectors in the community including transit, economic development, sustainability, business, and transportation.  The project objectives include:

  1. Rebrand the Bozeman Commute program to appeal to a broader audience
  2. Development of a comprehensive social marketing campaign
  3. Develop programs and outreach events to engage more people in understanding their transportation options.

Position Description

The Western Transportation Institute (WTI) is seeking five MSU students who will be responsible for supporting WTI in the development and implementation of the rebrand project. The plan is to create a multi-disciplinary student team consisting of one student from each of the following disciplines:  marketing, graphic design, engineering, public health and sustainability.  It is anticipated that this team approach will foster a culture of collaboration among people who likely have differing backgrounds and viewpoints. Roles may include the creation of marketing and outreach materials, website development, event coordination and implementation, data collection and analysis, survey design and analysis, literature reviews, preparing project reports, and making presentations to various community groups. 

The work is anticipated to start in mid-November and be complete by early June or when the project is complete.  Students will report to the Bozeman Commuter Project Manager- Matt Madsen.  Students will be paid $14 per hour up to 80 hours total per student over the next 6 months.  It is anticipated students will work approximately 10-15 hours per month on average, though that time may vary depending on class and other commitments.   Work will be remote, virtual, and possibly in-person.

Required Skills/Qualifications

  1. Junior or Senior Level Undergrad or master’s Level Student in Engineering, Marketing, Graphic Design, Art, Community Health, or Sustainability.
  2. Ability to work independently as well as in a collaborative environment
  3. Experience with Webex and other internet-based meeting software
  4. Ability and willingness to work during the Snowmester
  5. Demonstrated oral and written communication skills
  6. Demonstrated experience with programs like MailChimp, SurveyMonkey, and others

For More Information/To Apply

Contact Matthew Madsen, MPH, Research Associate at the Western Transportation Institute.  Matthew.madsen@montana.edu  Please submit a resume and cover letter to the email address listed above.  Please indicate your area of specialty in your cover letter.

Message from the Director: Our Research and Work Continues

Portrait of David Kack from 2020

Greetings from WTI! To staff, research partners, and friends of WTI who read our newsletter, I hope you are all staying safe and healthy.

During this extraordinary time, we are all understandably focused on the immediate and critical needs of ourselves, our families, and our communities. To the extent possible, however, WTI continues to conduct research, follow up on current projects, and assess future research opportunities. As Jason Carter, Vice-President of Research for Montana State University, said last week: “This event brings into sharp focus the importance of our research mission to push the boundaries of human knowledge in all directions. The research we conduct today has the potential to save lives tomorrow, and make for a more sustainable, prosperous, and equitable world.”

We are fortunate that many of our researchers can safely conduct their work from home and other remote locations as needed. The WTI headquarters offices are quieter than usual, but administrative, financial, and communications staff are available to provide support to WTI staff and all of our research partners.

Clearly, national and local conditions are changing rapidly, thus we will continue adapting how, where, and when we work. To our research partners, please keep in touch if you have current needs, or want to discuss evolving or emerging issues that may change where we focus our collaborative efforts in the future.

Communication remains more important than ever. While my “open door” approach is still in place, the door itself may have to be virtual for a few more weeks. Feel free to contact me at dkack@montana.edu or at 406-994-7526.

David Kack, Interim Executive Director

Do You Know a Good Candidate for the Public Lands Transportation Fellows Program?

ogo: Transportation icons including, shuttle bus, hiker, cyclist, tour boat and car. Text: Public Lands Transportation Fellows Program

The application process for the 2020 Public Lands Transportation Fellows (PLTF) Class is now open!! The PLTF program provides fellowships to recent graduates (sometimes current graduate students) in a transportation-related engineering, planning, or resource management program. They receive a unique opportunity for learning, career development, and public service within a federal land unit or agency headquarters.  This year, the program is seeking applications for five positions: one at the Southeast National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Louisiana, one at the Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Complex in Massachusetts, and three within the National Park Service.  Learn more at the PLTF Application webpage, then help us get the word out!

PROJECT NEWS: Just a short train ride from D.C.

Laura Fay and Karalyn Clouser in train traveling to MarylandAfter the TRB Annual Meeting in Washington D.C., Laura Fay (left), Karalyn Clouser (right), and Natalie Villwock-Witte traveled on to Maryland to meet with the Maryland Department of Transportation (DOT) about the Severe Weather Index (SWI) project. An SWI is a management tool that can assess the performance and related costs associated with winter maintenance operations. P.I. Laura Fay is leading the development of an SWI specifically for Maryland DOT, which assesses operations and costs by region, Maintenance Shop, and winter storm event.

New Year, New Staff!

headshot portrait of Andrea Hamre in 2020WTI is pleased to welcome Andrea Hamre, Ph.D. as a Research Associate in the Mobility and Public Transportation Program. With expertise in transportation demand management, sustainable transportation, and travel survey data analysis, she will conduct research for the Small Urban, Rural and Tribal Center on Mobility (SURTCOM) and for projects such as the Twin Falls Idaho Transit Study.

Prior to WTI, Andrea most recently served as a consultant and analyst for a nonprofit regional transportation management association in Vermont. She also has more than 14 years of experience in transportation policy and planning in the greater Washington, D.C. area, including extensive work on non-motorized travel issues.  For example, during that time she contributed to the 2014 edition of the Bicycling and Walking in the United States Benchmarking Report and produced the 2011 report Non-Motorized Travel in the City of Alexandria after coordinating the community’s first volunteer non-motorized counts using the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project methodology.

Andrea earned her M.S. and Ph.D. from Virginia Tech, and her B.A. from Middlebury College.  Originally from Minnesota, she and her husband are two of Bozeman’s newest residents.  They look forward to discovering the many biking and hiking trails of Montana, and as avid backyard astronomers, they take a special interest in exploring the new celestial vistas of “Big Sky Country”!

Transportation Fellows Benefit from Networking and Learning Opportunities at TRB Forums

Transportation Fellows Vince Ziols, Naomi Fireman, and Nathan Begay in field with mountain view near Kalispell, Montana.Recently, WTI co-hosted the Transportation Research Board (TRB) International Conference on Low Volume Roads, held in Kalispell, Montana earlier this fall.  Attendees who stayed a few extra days could opt to take part in another Transportation Research Board (TRB) event – the mid-year meeting of the TRB Committee on Transportation Needs of National Parks and Public Lands (ADA40), which has synergistic interests in topics related to providing access and safe travel in rural, remote, or unique locations.

Happy scheduling coincidence?  On the contrary, the two planning committees coordinated the dates of their forums to encourage attendance and allow participants to add value to their trips.  After learning about state-of-the practice management tools for low volume roads at the international conference, members of the National Parks committee held their own business meeting where they addressed emerging issues, such as the impacts and implications of visitors using E-bikes on public lands. Attendees also visited Glacier National Park where they learned about the management challenges of increasing visitation from Park Superintendent Jeff Mow and about transportation impacts on wildlife from Senior Wildlife Biologist John Waller.

The Public Lands Transportation Fellows attended both events and maximized the professional development opportunities.  Current fellows Vince Ziols, Naomi Fireman, and Nathan Begay are each assigned to a federal land unit where they work for one to two years on special transportation projects.  The TRB forums allow them to expand their knowledge on other emerging transportation issues.  Moreover, the Fellows had opportunities (not often available to young professionals) to collaborate and network with national transportation experts and leaders.

“At the Low Volume Roads conference, we were exposed to a productive mix of on-the-ground research and innovative thinking,” recalled the Fellows. “We met all sorts of people working on everything from safety signage to turning rail cars into pedestrian bridges to researching how autonomous vehicles could be used on public lands. We were inspired by everyone’s passion and dedication to public service. At the different field trips and events, we played ‘networking bingo’ and were able to converse with transportation professionals in a variety of fields.”

In addition, the discussion about E-bikes at the ADA 40 Committee meeting led to the development of a lectern session on this topic for the TRB Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. in January 2020. Fellow Naomi Firemen is conducting research on this issue at the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge Complex. She was added to the January agenda and will have the chance to make a presentation to a national audience.  All three Fellows will also be showcasing posters about their research at the TRB Annual Meeting, which they are looking forward to: “We are excited for this year’s TRB conference to reconnect with the ADA40 committee, expand our networks, and learn about even more current and innovative transportation research topics.”

On to the Next Adventure…

Group photo of WTI staff and guests at Steve Albert retirement party in July 2019

Marking the end of era, WTI’s two most senior leaders retired this month.  We bid a fond farewell to our Executive Director Steve Albert and our Assistant Director for Administration and Finance, Jeralyn Brodowy.

On July 17, Montana State University College of Engineering Dean Brett Gunnink hosted a retirement reception for Steve Albert, which was well attended by WTI staff, past and present.  Special guests included retired MSU Civil Engineering professors Joe Armijo, a WTI founder, and Ralph Zimmer.   Former WTI staff who surprised Steve for the occasion included Kate (Heidkamp) Laughery, Eli Cuelho, and Carol Diffendaffer.

Joe Armijo speaks at Steve Albert retirement party in July 2019Steve retires after leading WTI for 23 years, transforming a tiny organization with only two staff people and two engineers into a large, nationally and internationally recognized transportation institute, with a multi-million dollar research portfolio.  He will always be highly regarded not only for his leadership at WTI, but also for his contributions to the fields of rural transportation and advanced transportation technologies.

Kate Laughery at Steve Albert retirement party 2019WTI gathered for Jeralyn’s retirement party on July 3, honoring her 20 years of service to our organization.  After starting as Business Manager in 1999, she quickly advanced to the  position of Assistant Director. She has not only been instrumental in the long-term growth of WTI, she has also served as a mentor to other research centers around the country through her leadership in the Council of University Transportation Centers.

Both Steve and Jeralyn will be greatly missed at WTI, but we wish them all the best as they embark on the next chapters of their lives!

 

WTI staff and guests at Jeralyn Brodowy retirement party in July 2019

WTI staff and guests at Steve Albert retirement party in July 2019

New Transportation Fellow Arrives at National Wildlife Refuge

Group photos of attendees at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge attending 2019 Fellows orientationThe Public Lands Transportation Fellows program has welcomed its first fellow for 2019-2020! In early July, Naomi Firemen arrived at the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge Complex for training in her new position.  The Complex encompasses three individual wildlife refuges in the Virginia/Washington D.C. area.  Most of Naomi’s work will focus on improving transportation options at the Occoquan Bay NWR, a 600-acre refuge that is home to many migratory species and is currently expanding its facilities for visitors.  She will also explore opportunities to enhance transportation between Occoquan Bay and the other two refuges within the complex.

The Public Lands Transportation Fellows (PLTF) program provides fellowships to outstanding masters and doctoral graduates in a transportation-related field. Fellows have the unique opportunity to work at a federal land unit to plan or implement a project addressing visitor transportation issues for approximately one year.

Photo Caption: (left to right) Carl Melberg, USFWS Region 5 transportation coordinator; Amanda Daisey, USFWS PRNWRC Project Leader; Nathan Beauchamp, USFWS Transportation Program Analyst; Naomi Fireman, PRNWRC PLTF; Jaime Sullivan, PLTF Manager; Laura Whorton, USFWS Branch Chief of Transportation and Data Management; and Phil Shapiro, STC.