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As roads and railways expand in south and southeast Asia, endangered Asian elephants increasingly collide with trains and vehicles when they migrate from place to place.

In an effort to conserve the species, the Bozeman-based Center for Large Landscape Conservation is using lessons it learned in Montana and the West to help reduce elephant collisions in Asia.

Asian elephants used to roam throughout the continent, but today, only about 52,000 of the large mammals remain. Populations are scattered in isolated areas of 13 southern and southeast Asian countries, and they are shrinking.

“Their habitat is getting so carved up by human development, and Asian elephants need to get to so many different habitats throughout the year,” said Rob Ament, senior conservationist with the nonprofit. “The barrier effect of these rails and roads is very problematic.”

Ament is co-author of a new international report that urges government agencies, financial institutions and non-governmental organizations to conserve Asian elephants by incorporating wildlife crossings into transportation infrastructure. Titled “Protecting Asian Elephants from Linear Transport Infrastructure,” the new report was released by the Asian Elephant Transport Working Group — a body of experts affiliated with two International Union for Conservation of Nature specialist groups.

IUCN is a large, international organization that’s broadly considered the world’s authority on conservation. Ament co-chairs IUCN’s Transport Working Group, which focuses on ecological connectivity.

Some of the report’s recommendations are informed by findings in North America, including Montana, where experts from the Center for Large Landscape Conservation have learned how to design effective wildlife crossings for large mammals like bears.

There are plenty of big, wide-ranging animals that could benefit from wildlife crossings designed for Asian elephants, including tigers and rhinoceros, according to Ament. Many of the species are threatened or endangered.

“If you fix roads and rails and canals for elephants … all the other species will probably be able to use the same structures,” he said. “That’s what we learned here in North America: that you can design crossings for grizzly bears and elk, and you’ll find that many of the small species will use the same structure.”

Many of Asia’s developing countries have only started to build wildlife crossings in the last five years or so, meaning studies to determine which species prefer overpasses versus underpasses are still behind North America, Ament said.

Bhutan was one of the first countries in the region to try out elephant underpasses, according to Ament. They’ve found that Asian elephants are using the structures.

In Montana and the West, experts have found that the types and sizes of crossings play a role in the kinds of animals that use them. Black bears preferred not to use overpasses, for example, Ament said.

Placing wildlife crossings in spots where animals are most likely to travel is particularly critical, according to Ament. With Asian elephants, that’s easy. They blaze clear and regular paths.

“If they aren’t perfectly located, you have to guide the animals to the structures, which means fencing,” he said. “As you can imagine, building a fence for an elephant is pretty difficult.”

The report on Asian elephants says new highways and rails should be kept away from elephant strongholds, but when that’s not possible, wildlife crossings should be incorporated into the new infrastructure.

“Ideally, new transport infrastructure can avoid crossing through key elephant habitat altogether,” Ament said in a news release. “But if that can’t happen, then we need to build elephant-sized wildlife crossings where they are needed, and we must get started as soon as possible.”

In a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, staff from the Center for Large Landscape Conservation led efforts to assess whether 28 Asian countries have the capacity to develop wildlife-friendly infrastructure.

As part of the effort, staff mapped out close to 31,000 square miles of proposed roads, power lines and railways across the continent.

They found that the new infrastructure had the potential to impact over 350 protected areas and 12% to 20% of Asian landscapes with the greatest biodiversity, Ament said in a new release about the project from October.

“We really are talking about serious fragmentation of the remaining intact landscapes across the continent,” he said in an interview. “Things are really being transformed in many of the developing countries in Asia.”

Many of the roads built in developing countries in Asia are financed by multilateral development banks, and Ament said the Center for Large Landscape Conservation is trying to add wildlife protection standards to loans for developing new roads and rails.

In the United States, the newly passed infrastructure bill allocated $350 million toward starting pilot wildlife crossing programs, according to Ament.

“The U.S. is making a serious investment in developing a program for wildlife crossings,” he said.

The Montana Department of Transportation and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks are also investing in wildlife crossings. The departments are co-developing a strategy to reduce animal-vehicle collisions on highways.

“The whole extinction crisis doesn’t just happen in our backyard. It’s happening everywhere,” Ament said. “If we have resources and knowledge that we can transfer to other parts of the world, then I just think it’s a very worthwhile and responsible use of our time and money to help others.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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