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A drive along Montana’s Scenic U.S. Highway 89 through Paradise Valley offers picturesque views in every direction. Out one window of their vehicle, a driver can enjoy the meandering Yellowstone River and rugged peaks of the Absaroka Range. Out the other window the tree-lined peaks of the Gallatin Range rise to meet the sky. It’s an essential Montana landscape, with cows and combines dotting the valley — lives carved out in the midst of wildness. Wildlife live here too, which makes traveling through the valley an exciting opportunity for viewing wildlife, and presents a major a safety concern for humans and animals alike.

A community of citizens and organizations who live, work, and play in the Upper Yellowstone watershed formed Yellowstone Safe Passages last year in recognition of this wildlife-vehicle dynamic on Highway 89. State and federal agencies, Park County elected officials, private foundations, community groups, environmental groups, outfitters, anglers, local landowners, business owners, and individuals are working together to enhance the safety of people and wildlife traveling through the corridor.

Many of us have either witnessed or been involved in a wildlife-vehicle collision. Highway 89 is a gateway to Yellowstone National Park, and the variety of wildlife that are likely to cross the road is staggering. The elk, deer, bears, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, moose, and birds that draw millions of people to this state annually and support our economy are also the animals that end up dead trying to cross a road to meet their needs. With visitation to Yellowstone at an all-time high, the number of vehicles using the highway is likely to increase even more than what we’re seeing today, especially with the pandemic-related surge of visitors and new residents.

Wildlife-vehicle collisions are an economic and human safety issue in Montana. Roughly half of collisions on the 56-mile stretch of Highway 89 between Livingston and Gardiner involve wildlife. According to a Montana Department of Transportation study of the highway corridor, roughly 1,700 collisions with wildlife occurred over a ten-year period. And these are just the collisions that are reported or detected. In the U.S. and Canada, researchers estimated collisions with large ungulates cost over $6,000 per deer or bighorn sheep, $17,000 per elk, and $30,000 per moose. Clearly these costs add up quickly in a place bustling with wildlife like Paradise Valley. Anyone who drives Highway 89 knows that the potential for a crash with wildlife is stressful.

Since its launch, Yellowstone Safe Passages has learned from experts in wildlife conservation and road ecology, studied infrastructure options such as fencing, underpasses, and overpasses to protect motorists and wildlife, and reached out to people in the valley to hear their stories and concerns.

The group held four webinars earlier this spring to introduce the coalition and its goals to locals who care deeply about this region’s way of life. The webinars provide data about the collisions in the Upper Yellowstone Watershed, hear from agencies about jurisdictional frameworks, and look toward future solutions. These discussions were recorded and can be found on the Yellowstone Safe Passages website. The group created a citizen science program aimed at better understanding important locations along the highway to improve safe passage and invites anyone who is interested to participate. You can learn more about how to get involved on our ‘Take Action’ page.

We envision working with our broad community to ensure the Upper Yellowstone is a place where visitors and locals can travel the highway without wildlife-related accidents, and where the highway doesn’t act as a barrier to daily and seasonal movement of Yellowstone’s iconic wildlife. We know that by working together, we can create durable solutions that benefit people and wildlife along Highway 89.

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Brooke Shifrin is senior wildlife program associate with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

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