News

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

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

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

Go Gallatin Challenge Kicks Off on May 10

Logo for Go Gallatin Challenge from May 10 to May 21 with graphics of different transportation modes

Ready to move more in May?  Join the Go Gallatin Challenge, which kicks off on Monday, May 10! It’s a two-week competition among organizations across the Gallatin Valley and surrounding areas to replace drive-alone trips to and from work by biking, walking, riding the bus, teleworking, and carpooling.

Challenge participants that log at least 3 trips a week will be eligible to win prizes from one of our sponsors.  Working from home?  This year, getting outside on your wheels or feet for exercise will also count towards points.

For more information or to sign up for the challenge on the Go Gallatin Challenge event page. If you have questions, send an email to gallatincommute@montana.edu.

NPS Introduces Fellows on Transformation Tuesday

As part of its “Transformation Tuesday” series, the National Park Service (NPS) profiled three fellows from the Public Lands Transportation Fellows (PLTF) program who are currently serving NPS units or projects. PLTF Fellows are assigned to a federal land unit for one to two years, where they lead or support projects that enhance transportation options for visitors.  Within the 2020 PLTF class, three Fellows are serving the NPS. (Read the full article on the NPS website.)

Outdoor headshot of Fellow Ma'ayan Dembo
Ma’ayan Dembo. Focus: Transit/Accessibility. NPS Unit: Glacier National Park
Outdoor photo of Patrick McMahon with backpack 2021
Patrick McMahon. Focus: Climate Change. NPS Units: Alaska National Parks
Outdoor headshot of Fellow Charlie Gould 2021
Charlie Gould. Focus: Emerging Technologies. NPS Unit: Yellowstone National Park

STUDENT NEWS: CATS Participants Create Designs for Bozeman Park

Group of students listen to speaker during field trip to Soroptimist Park in Bozeman

In a recent feature article, Montana State University News Service detailed the contributions of MSU students to future plans for Soroptimist Park in Bozeman, Montana. The students are part of the Community-Engaged and Transformational Scholarship (CATS) program, led by WTI, which matches projects identified and prioritized by Montana communities with students and faculty in relevant disciplines at MSU to assist in making those projects reality.  During the Fall 2020 semester, students in two undergraduate courses in the MSU College of Agriculture gained hands-on experience working with the city of Bozeman on research, site visits, and design workshops, which culminated in recommendations and designs for renovating the park into a multi-use urban plaza.

PROJECT NEWS: Tools and Strategies for Developing Severity Indices

snow plow drives on snowy 2 lane highway through forest

The Clear Roads research program, which sponsors practitioner-focused winter maintenance research, is highlighting a recently completed severity index project on its website. For “Evaluation of SSI and WSI Variables,” the Narwhal Group and WTI collaborated to create a step-by-step guide to support implementing a severity index, paired with a flowchart tool that helps match users with existing indexes.

These tools will help winter maintenance agencies select the most appropriate storm severity index and winter severity index to compare storms across more than one winter season. “While a number of severity indexes exist, determining if you can apply or modify one for your needs or develop your own can be a daunting task. This guide and flowchart tool will support agencies in this task,” said Cold Climates Program Manager Laura Fay, who served as a co-PI. The final report is available on the WTI project webpage and there is a research brief on the Clear Roads project page.

IN THE NEWS: Reducing Wildlife-Vehicle Collisions in Appalachia

Marcel Huijser

Public Policy magazine In These Times recently interviewed WTI Road Ecologist Marcel Huijser for an in-depth article on wildlife crossings.  “Toward a World Without Roadkill” highlights efforts by residents and local organizations near Great Smoky Mountains National Park to reduce the rising number of bears, deer, and elk being hit by vehicles on Interstate 40.  Marcel discusses how mitigation efforts such as wildlife crossings can have significant conservation, safety, and economic benefits.

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

IN THE NEWS: High Country News Reports on Montana Passenger Rail

Outdoor portrait of David Kack in 2020

In a recent article, High Country News provides an update on the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, a Montana coalition that is working to revive a passenger rail line that would span 600 miles across the state.   “Montana Counties Band Together to Reinvigorate Passenger Rail” summarizes efforts to secure local, state and federal support, as well as funding, to restore Amtrak service that would connect residents to some of the larger cities in the state, including Missoula, Bozeman, and Billings.  WTI Director David Kack was interviewed for the article, discussing how rail service can provide valuable mobility options for people in rural towns who can no longer drive or who lack access to a vehicle.

MSU Selects Jay Otto for Employee Recognition

Head shot of Jay Otto

On April 14, Center for Health and Safety Culture Principal Scientist Jay Otto was selected for “Pure Gold,” a Montana State University employee recognition program.  Nominated by colleague Annmarie McMahill, Jay was recognized for his meaningful research projects and his “above and beyond” efforts to serve the university and community. Read the full story on the Pure Gold recipients webpage.  Congratulations, Jay!

NEW NAME, NEW CHALLENGE: The Bozeman Commuter Project Has Rebranded

Join the GoGallatin MSU Commuter Challenge this week

2021 graphic logo for Gallatin Commuter Project

In October, WTI was awarded an Office of Outreach & Engagement Seed grant to begin a rebrand of the existing Bozeman Commuter Project. Four Montana State University students are working with WTI project lead Matt Madsen as a collaborative team to move the project forward (stay tuned to learn more about all the students!). The goal of the project was to create a more encompassing program, now rebranded as the Gallatin Commuter Project and GoGallatin. The existing BozemanCommute platform has become GoGallatin and provides all the same ride tracking, carpool options, transit schedules and other transportation demand management solutions.

2021 graphic logo for GO Gallatin

To kick off the rebrand, The Gallatin Commuter Project is sponsoring the GoGallatin MSU Campus Commuter Challenge. This year’s challenge is open to all students and staff at MSU and runs from April 5th – 11th. Join this campus-wide event (and invite your friends), then start commuting this week via biking, walking, taking the bus, carpooling, scootering, roller-blading, even pogo-sticking!

How Does it Work? By tracking your commute trips, you can be in the running for gift cards to local businesses. Once registered, track your commute as an individual or part of a team by joining or creating a team of your MSU colleagues, peers, and/or community members. If you need help, send us an email at gallatincommute@montana.edu To see how your team is stacking up against other teams in a friendly competition, you can keep an eye of the leaderboard!

Rewards and incentives: Every participant who logs 2 trips during the week will be entered into a drawing for gift cards to various local restaurants and businesses! You can win a gift card to one of these fine establishments:

  • Bangtail Bikes
  • Bridger Brewing
  • Columbo’s Pizza
  • Essy’s
  • International Coffee Traders

Registration Register on the Gallatin Commuter Project Platform at: https://bozemancommute.org/#/ to create an account, join a team, and log your commute trips! Faculty and Staff can register as part of the MSU Network; students can register as a part of the MSU Students Network. Want to join the WTI team? Follow this link to join: https://bozemancommute.org/s/western-transportation-wd.  More information is also available on the MSU Events page.