Animal crossing: Reconnecting North America’s most important wildlife corridor

This past summer an ambitious wildlife under/overpass system broke ground in B.C. on a deadly stretch of highway just west of the Alberta border. Here’s how it happened.

  • Published Nov 11, 2021
  • Updated Apr 19, 2022
  • 3,625 words
  • 15 minutes
A grizzly bear lies dead on the side of the road
In the Elk Valley of British Columbia, 25 per cent of elk mortalities and 30 per cent of grizzly deaths are due to vehicles. (Photo: Clayton Lamb)
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Clayton Lamb doesn’t know exactly how “Fran” died. A wildlife scientist, he’s seen grizzly bears hit by cars and trucks, a few by trains, and he knows her broken pelvis meant it was one or the other.

What he can reconstruct, based on data gathered when he fit the young female with a radio tracking collar a month earlier, the handful of GPS locations transmitted after her release, and where they found her body, is this.

Fran was one of nearly 60 grizzly bears Lamb has collared for tracking studies in the Elk Valley in southeastern British Columbia in the past five years. Although each bear is given a designated number, Lamb says he can never remember who they are by their four-digit number, “so I always give them a human name.” Fran was three years old and weighed 117 kilograms. Her torso was light tan-grey, her legs near-black.

The valley is a scenic U-shaped corridor with sharp peaks and steep slopes lined with spruce, fir and pine turning to mixed forest on the narrow valley floor. There, the winding Elk River shares space with a CP Rail line and the two-lane Highway 3 (known as the Crowsnest Highway), the main highway through southern British Columbia. Fran was collared halfway between the valley’s two biggest towns, Fernie and Sparwood, in early October. GPS signals show that she spent the next two weeks nearby, in and around the hamlet of Hosmer. Her last ping there was October 23. A day later, the signal placed her 10 kilometres up the valley near Sparwood.

Bears cross road and rail lines to feed, migrate, mate and rear young. The crossings will make this deadly section of B.C. highway safer. (Photo: John E. Marriott)
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Other than foraging, Fran — a year removed from leaving her mother, maybe two shy of breeding age — was no doubt keen to locate a den site for the winter. Perhaps that was on her mind when she came down off the eastern slope the next day. West of the highway and rail line, inside the elbow of an Elk River meander, there’s a big cement yard. Fran’s next ping, on October 25, came from a wooded flat on the far bank just beyond. Readouts from October 26 to November 1 were clustered in a spot 150 metres away.

Lamb got a “mortality” alert, sent when a collar hasn’t moved in 24 hours, on November 2. The road nearest her signal was a gravel track up a mountainside. From there, Lamb scrambled down a steep bank, carrying an antenna and telemetry receiver (to locate the collar) and a backpack with his necropsy kit (knives, saws, sample bags). Reaching her, it was obvious other predators had been there first. “She probably died very slowly,” he says. “It’s kind of a sad one.”

Once Lamb’s examination revealed the fractured pelvis, the story of Fran’s last hours quickly fell into place. “She was hit — we think by a vehicle — made it across the Elk River, through a large patch of trees on a flat, but as soon as she hit the slope on the other side, she couldn’t get up and she died there.”

Fran’s story is all-too-common in this corner of B.C., where the long list of abundant wildlife moving about the landscape — feeding, migrating, mating, rearing young, avoiding and exploiting human presence — is matched by an equally long list of wildlife-vehicle collisions. A bear managing to crawl a kilometre with a broken pelvis before expiring is rare, but in a region equally rich with lynx, wolverine, cougar and wolf, as well as elk, deer, moose and bighorn sheep, fatalities are not.

Amazingly, four of the province’s eight top roadkill hot spots are on one narrow 20-kilometre section of Highway 3 between the Alberta border (at the Crowsnest Pass) and Sparwood. There, the road (and rail line) follows a pair of Elk River tributaries, Alexander and Michel creeks, before taking a hard, 90-degree turn south into the Elk Valley proper. There are roughly 200 collisions reported annually between large mammals and vehicles passing along this stretch. In the Elk Valley itself, 25 per cent of elk mortalities and 30 per cent of grizzly deaths are due to vehicles.

“People hit animals. And if they haven’t, they know somebody who has,” says Candace Batycki, B.C. and Yukon program director with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, a wild lands protection and connection advocacy group. They’ve been watching elk get slaughtered on that highway for decades.

But that could soon change. After more than 10 years of consultation, research and planning, a team of conservation and road ecology experts, local stakeholders, the Ktunaxa Nation and key staff from B.C.’s provincial transportation and natural resources ministries have broken ground on the first phase of the most ambitious wildlife crossing system ever attempted in Canada outside a national park. The plan calls for adding nine crossing locations on 36 kilometres of Highway 3 from the Alberta border to Hosmer. The centrepiece will be a 50-metrewide wildlife overpass spanning the highway and rail line a short distance west of the border. If it all comes to fruition — still not a certainty without committed funding for the overpass — the estimated $20-million project, called “Reconnecting the Rockies,” has the potential to cut the number of collisions on this deadly stretch of highway by 80 to 90 per cent.

The wildlife crossing system would cut the carnage and alleviate the risks to motorists and the costs of vehicle damage. But there’s another reason this effort matters. Highway 3 bisects one of the most ecologically significant regions in southern Canada. The Elk Valley, and the East Kootenay region generally, is a core part of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, one of just two areas where grizzlies and other wide-ranging species can move back and forth between Canada and the United States. That makes it a critical north-south chokepoint in the Yellowstone to Yukon region, a key wildlife corridor that runs 3,200 kilometres from north to south, spanning two Canadian territories, two provinces and five U.S. states.

The importance of Elk Valley as a wildlife corridor has been understood for decades. Researchers have been compiling evidence since the 1990s proving that the highway and local settlement are harming apex predators. For some, grizzlies in particular, it’s also preventing healthy genetic mixing between populations living north and south. With increasing mining and forestry, more people visiting the area for recreation and traffic increasing, the area’s ecological linchpin status is in jeopardy.

“This is the last, best corridor,” says Tony Clevenger, the researcher whose science informed the design and placement of Banff National Park’s renowned highway wildlife overpass and underpass system and one of Reconnecting the Rockies’ original project leaders. “This is what ties Y2Y together. Basically, if you lose this, you lose everything.”

The push for Reconnecting the Rockies dates back a decade, the blueprint laid out in a pair of critical documents. The first, a 2010 report recommending structural changes along the Highway 3 corridor to foster “wildlife and connectivity,” studied the route from Cranbrook through the Elk Valley and into Alberta where it exits the foothills of the Rockies near Lundbreck, 40 kilometres east of the Crowsnest Pass. Written by Clevenger and six others, it identifies priority areas and recommends action along the highway at six points in Alberta and eight in B.C.

The second document came together nine years later, when Clevenger, Lamb and Tracy Lee, senior project manager at the Miistakis Institute, a Calgary-based conservation organization, published an amendment to the original report focused specifically on Highway 3 in British Columbia. It included additional priority mitigation sites beyond those flagged in 2010 and is the basis for the work that’s now underway. 

Even as they published the first report, the authors knew they needed more data on wildlife deaths on the B.C. side to have a workable plan for that area. Enter citizen science. It took several years, but a key part of gathering that new information began in early 2016 with the launch of RoadWatchBC. Developed jointly by Miistakis, Yellowstone to Yukon and Wildsight, a conservation and sustainability network in the Kootenay region, RoadWatchBC invited Elk Valley motorists on Highway 3 to log wildlife sightings — animals killed, injured or trying to cross — on an app and website. The program ran until early 2019, with more than 200 people submitting observations. “Citizen science was a good way to meaningfully engage people and address a data gap at the same time,” says Lee. 

Adds Y2Y’s Batycki: “Ministry data is badly underreported because it’s just based on roadkill. The RoadWatchBC program helped citizens be extra eyes to find out where animals are crossing safely, where they’re having trouble and where they’re struck and injured but leave the location.”

Along with the RoadWatch data, the team also got some fresh research from the province, as well as the results of grizzly and elk tracking studies prepared by Lamb, who was then finishing his PhD in ecology, studying human impacts on grizzly bear populations, at the University of Alberta. Before writing the amendment, they held another workshop at a hotel meeting room in Fernie in May 2019 to share their findings and get feedback.

Local hunting and fishing community reps, contractors, area politicians, scientists and other members of the public attended. But the most important person in the room that day turned out to be a quiet, middle-aged man with a light brown moustache who’d driven in almost 700 kilometres from Kamloops.

“We’d never met before. And he didn’t say much. But he sat at the end of the table and took everything in,” recalls Batycki. “At the end of the meeting, I introduced myself and said we really appreciate that you came all the way from Kamloops. And he said, ‘I’m pretty interested in this.’”

That man was Duane Wells, regional manager of environmental services in the engineering section of B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. His team is responsible for ensuring all new road work in southern B.C. meets standards set out to protect wildlife and fishery resources. Typically, that means ensuring stream culverts under new roads are fish-passable and that other structures include passageways for land animals. When it came to retrofits, however, to that point he’d mostly overseen the installation of box culvert passageways for endangered western toads. “A much smaller scale than when you’re dealing with grizzly bears,” says Wells dryly.

Today, however, his partners on the Reconnecting the Rockies team use words like “absolute champion,” “hero” and “catalyst” to describe Wells and the role he has played in turning their plans into reality. This despite the fact that, initially at least, he largely managed it off the side of his desk.

After the Fernie meeting, Wells drove the Elk Valley route himself, noting the bridges and their foundations and what kind of work and equipment would be needed to improve wildlife passage beneath them. A month later, he returned for meetings with Teck Resources, which operates five open-pit coal mines in the Elk Valley. While there, he asked his contact to show him where animals commonly cross the highway.

At the second site they visited, Wells had an epiphany. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, this is perfect,’” he says.

Named Alexander-Michel for the two nearby creeks, it was highlighted as a priority crossing site in 2010. But it took a transportation engineer to stop at this section of highway, observe the train tracks running closely alongside the highway at the bottom of a narrowing in the terrain, and identify it as the prime spot for an overpass.

He immediately called Batycki, Lee and Wildsight’s Elk Valley conservation coordinator Randal Macnair and asked if he could show them what he was thinking.

“We met Duane up at Crowsnest Pass,” says Batycki. “We got in our cars and he pulled us over at Alexander-Michel and said: ‘Here’s where we’re going to put your overpass.’ And we were just looking at each other. We couldn’t even speak.”

Stone ramps guide wildlife under the Loop Bridge. (Photo: John E. Marriott)
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B.C. has a limited annual budget for transportation-related wildlife work around the province, nowhere near the $12 million to $15 million it will cost to build an overpass. So hearing someone in Wells’ position say he was committed to finding a way forward gave the conservationists a charge. “That’s the kind of champion you need to make something happen,” says Batycki.

This is not to say the ministry wasn’t aware of the issues on Highway 3. Roadkill data logged by transportation ministry personnel in the provincial Wildlife Accident Reporting System had already flagged hot spots. In 2016, two wildlife detection systems were installed on the highway east of Sparwood. The systems use radar to detect animals on the road, which then triggers flashing lights to warn motorists to slow down. The ministry had also included wildlife tunnels beneath two Highway 3 projects completed in the past two years — the addition of a passing lane near Jaffray, west of the Elk Valley, and a bridge replacement at Lizard Creek, in Fernie.

What makes Reconnecting the Rockies different, however, is that it’s an interconnected system. The overpass and underpasses are tied into a continuous thread of fencing that runs along both sides of the highway, keeping animals out of traffic and steering them to the passageways. The idea is to combine the double goals of collision prevention and wildlife connectivity from north to south and vice versa.

While the 2019 amendment took in Highway 3 all the way west to Cranbrook, Wells recommended that at this stage they limit Reconnecting the Rockies to the more manageable section east of Hosmer. The first phase calls for retrofits to improve wildlife access through eight existing underpasses with the installation of 2.4-metre-high guiding wire fencing along the highway between each underpass over a five-year period. The timing for the second phase — the new overpass — hinges on when, and whether, the team can raise enough money and support from provincial, federal and private sources to make it happen. “Fingers are crossed and we’re knocking on every available door,” says Batycki.

With no formal budget to start, Wells had to get creative to find money and resources within his department to do the first surveys, planning and design work. When Emily Chow, a wildlife biologist with the B.C. Ministry of Forest Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, joined Wells, Lamb, Lee, Batycki and Macnair on their ad hoc steering group, she made finding additional funds a priority.

Working segment by segment, the team has built momentum. By late 2020, new wildlife-friendly riprap stone ramps had been installed beneath adjacent underpasses at Carbon Bridge and Loop Bridge. The 2021 goal was to do the same at Alexander Creek Bridge and to install the first five kilometres of fencing linking those sections together.

By the middle of 2021, the strategy seemed to be paying off. In July, the transportation ministry confirmed that it would contribute more than half a million dollars for fencing, and the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development secured another half million in federal stimulus money. That’s enough to pay for everything that’s planned for this year, though some last-minute design complications meant construction of half of the planned fencing was postponed until 2022.

Ktunaxa ?a·knusti Guardians and wildlife biologists Clayton Lamb and Emily Chow at the site of the future overpass. The highway is in the gulley behind them. (Photo: Liam Brennan/Can Geo)
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Meanwhile, other steering group members are pushing for more support, lobbying politicians and policy-makers, local community members and private interests such as Teck and CP Rail. The main selling points: the project can pay for itself in 10 to 15 years through reduced insurance costs; the promise of far fewer collisions; and a healthier wildlife population for those who fish, hunt and spend time on the land. But at the top of this list for many conservationists is the ecological case — this expanded and improved system of crossings will protect biodiversity through landscape connectivity.

One constituency crucial to the project’s success is Ktunaxa Nation, whose homeland includes the Kootenay region of southeastern B.C. and parts of southwestern Alberta as well as northern Washington, Idaho and western Montana. In the past year, Lamb has toured the proposed sites with Ktunaxa leaders, biologists and community members. More recently, he has hired nine members of the Ktunaxa Guardians program to serve as subject-matter experts to help him and Chow with a long-term camera monitoring project they’ve set up to document how wildlife uses the crossing areas, both before and after the work is done.

“We have a whole team of volunteers helping us score photos,” explains Lamb. “But the Guardians have a much deeper knowledge of wildlife because they’re on the land and they hunt. So, they’ll be our expert species identifiers. They’ll also come out with us when we do site visits to plan work in future years and use their knowledge to help guide what we do.” This will also include archeological expertise to make sure the work does not disturb any culturally significant sites.

One Ktunaxa citizen who toured the area with Lamb is Marty Williams, who lives on a reserve just north of Cranbrook, one of four Ktunaxa reserves north of the U.S. border. “With regards to the overpasses and the underpasses, I think these are long, long overdue,” says Williams. “Whenever these highways were designed, they didn’t take into consideration the wildlife corridors, the migration and travel routes of the ungulates. It’s very encouraging for me and my people because the elk is one of the main meats providing food for our people.”

Williams says he appreciates the science that’s gone into the site selection, particularly the overpass. “I went out there to see, you know, is this a good idea or not? And the site they chose, I thought this is a good place. You can see where the elk were travelling — they’ve got a trail that they walk or travel down. It goes right down to the highway.”

An example of a wildlife overpass. The Yoho overpass was built in 2017 over the Trans Canada Highway east of Golden, B.C. (Photo: John E. Marriott)
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His endorsement of the overpass site underscores the fact that, notwithstanding Wells’ vision, a suitable layout is only one of many critical factors that need to align — and the Alexander-Michel site has them all.

While Williams noted the elk trails, Lamb’s grizzly tracking also showed that bears have a strong preference for the location. “Most of the places that they cross right now are within 500 metres to a kilometre of that overpass site,” he says.

But there’s no point in investing in an overpass unless the lands on both sides of the structure are protected. Fortunately, in this case, some of the lands are held by the Nature Conservancy of Canada and most of the rest are secured through conservation easements obtained by Teck.

A final factor is how it fits into the larger, regional, cross-boundary landscape.The north-south valley corridors on either side of the Alexander-Michel overpass site have the lowest human footprint in the region. “That makes it much more appealing, obviously, for animals to move north-south in,” says Lamb.

Next year, Reconnecting the Rockies will hit an important milestone when, for the first time, motorists along Highway 3 will start to see transportation ministry crews — Duane Wells’ crews — installing the first sections of fencing that will link the Loop and Carbon bridges.

For the steering group, most of whom are battle-hardened wildlife advocates, the opportunity to be driving a project that offers a win for every stakeholder is, in Batycki’s words, “a joyful place to be as a conservationist.” As the group member most directly involved in discussions with the politicians and decision-makers, she’s probably got the best read on the sentiment behind closeddoors. Publicly, all she’s comfortable in saying is that “the project is viewed favourably all the way up to the minister, and everybody is thinking about ways to make it real, to make it happen.”

The headlights show how deadly the highway is at night when many animals are on the move. This is where the proposed overpass would be located. (Photo: Liam Brennan/Can Geo)
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For its part, when asked about its current position on the overpass proposal — without which, Clevenger says, Reconnecting the Rockies can’t be a success — the transportation ministry isn’t saying no, but it’s also far from saying yes. “At this time, the ministry doesn’t have dedicated funding for this project. However, partner funding could present an opportunity to jointly support a wildlife crossing or other wildlife protection infrastructure,” its statement reads.

No one has seen the push and pull of road ecology campaigns play out in more locations, in more contexts, than Clevenger. Getting to “yes” is “a political problem, not an ecological or environmental one,” he says.

Regardless, he is buoyed by how the public’s overall awareness of highways’ harmful ecological impacts has grown in step with an appreciation for the value that wildlife crossing structures deliver. “A large part of it is education and communication. People start hearing about these things and they don’t think it’s such a farfetched idea to have bridges or tunnels for wildlife, and then local communities ask for these things.” 

Lamb, meanwhile, sees even bigger potential. “If we can make this work here in this complicated landscape, then this project becomes the archetype for future projects in more working landscapes — areas where we need to be more concerned about mitigating [danger to wildlife] than national parks.”

As this story went to press, Lamb relayed some grim news: “Another one yesterday, unfortunately.” His message included a photo of bloodstained pavement and the lifeless body of a grizzly lying on the shoulder of the deadly highway. Although this bear was not collared, Lamb took a DNA sample to see whether it was the offspring of any grizzlies he’d studied. It was a stark reminder of the deadly consequences of human infrastructure and the task at hand — another bear lost even as conservationists keep their eye on the larger prize of someday seeing Reconnecting the Rockies labelled a success story in connecting fractured habitats.


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November/December 2021

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