IS WILDLIFE VENTURING WHERE PEOPLE FEAR TO TREAD?
By Whit Gibbons
One sunny morning in May after a night rain, I traveled a rural blacktop highway. During the 20-mile trip, I stopped to pick up three box turtles and a ratsnake, moving each one safely across the road in the direction it was headed. I saw no more than a half dozen other vehicles, even though it was a weekday. I travel this road often and usually see either no animals or only dead ones, killed by vehicles. Based on my own experience and reports from others, more live animals are out and about on public roads and in parks this spring—clearly a byproduct of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Wildlife studies have documented that millions of turtles, snakes, frogs, birds and mammals nationwide are killed by vehicles each year. This spring, because of a significant reduction in automotive travel in the United States, more native wildlife is making it safely from one side of the highway to the other. The reduction in road-killed mammals (such as opossums, raccoons and foxes) has an ecological impact in addition to the deaths themselves. Roadkill is often the primary food source for certain animals. For example, road-killed mammals are used to feed the large alligators kept in outdoor ponds at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Lab. The alligators have been an important part of public education programs for many years.
According to Sean Poppy, Outreach Coordinator at SREL, fewer dead mammals are being found on roads, and the surplus normally kept in a large freezer is rapidly dwindling. Sean also uses roadkill to feed a turkey vulture used in SREL educational presentations. He makes an interesting point about another effect of reduced roadkill on these important scavengers. Fewer dead animals on highways “makes it more difficult for wild vultures to find food,” he says. Many vultures have become dependent on patrolling highways daily to look for an easy meal. “What little is found usually has several vultures fighting over it,” a behavior I have noticed recently as well.
Many animals are innately wary of roads because they are open spaces where many wildlife species, especially small ones, make easy prey for hawks, owls and large terrestrial predators. A major study on snakes documented that all of them take the shortest route from one side of a highway to the other. In other words, they know a road is an unsafe place and want to go across as fast as possible, which means perpendicular to it. With a reduction in highway traffic, wildlife that must cross a road to get to feeding areas or to find mates probably have a much better chance of getting there without being hit by a car.
One consequence of limited travel has been fewer visitors to state and national parks. Sightings by park rangers of wild animals near unoccupied campgrounds have been more numerous than in previous years. Another aftereffect is seen in a report from the Department of Transportation in Montana noting a reduction in the number of collisions with wildlife since the corona virus shutdowns. An automobile-versus-animal contest out West can have grievous consequences. Colliding with a bear, mule deer or bighorn sheep is likely to be a lot more serious than running over a frog or turtle. A collision might be fatal not only to the animal but also to people in the vehicle.
Shelter-at-home policies have given us an unusual opportunity: To see clearly the interconnectedness between the environment, wildlife and ourselves. Besides the effects on roadkill, globally we see lowered levels of air pollution because of dramatically reduced emissions from automobiles and industries. Mount Everest is visible from Kathmandu for the fist time in living memory. Whatever normal is going to be from here on out, it should include a hard look at how and to what extent we affect the natural world and plans to modify our environmental attitudes.
Dr. Whit Gibbons is Professor Emeritus of Ecology, University of Georgia, and former Head of the Environmental Outreach and Education program at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL). He currently serves on ARC's Board of Directors.