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Special $1.29 million wildlife tunnel being installed as part of Highway 101 twinning project
As the sun begins to set, a white-tailed deer darts across the highway, dodging two cars on a mad race to the other side.
This one was lucky. It lived to see another day.
The same can’t be said for the raccoon that followed shortly thereafter.
Roadkill is an all too common sight along Nova Scotia’s highways — and it’s one that wildlife advocates hope will be reduced as more collision mitigation systems are installed across the province.
As part of the Highway 101 twinning project, a $1.29-million wildlife tunnel is nearing completion between Falmouth and Hantsport. The purpose is to provide wildlife with a safe alternative to use to travel between habitats.
Allison Dean, the Watch for Wildlife co-ordinator, is excited by the investment and says the Falmouth tunnel should help reduce wildlife collisions and mortalities in the area.
“Based on the data collected by both Lands and Forestry and the RCMP, that is a really pivotal spot for deer collisions,” said Dean. “Because they’ve noticed that it is a hot spot, they then decided that was a good spot (for a tunnel).”
Megan Tonet, media relations with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, and fellow TIR spokesman Steve Warburton, said the Department of Lands and Forestry collected detailed data for almost 20 years — from 1999 to 2018 — at the site.
“It showed 166 deer-vehicle collisions along Highway 101 between exits 7 and 8. That is an average of nine collisions per year, which is high compared to other stretches of Nova Scotia highway,” they said in an email response.
They said the “decision was guided by TIR’s Wildlife Management Plan.”
The tunnel, which is 3.1 metres wide, 3.7 metres high and 50 metres long, has been constructed, but the skylight atrium above the tunnel to provide adequate lighting as well as highway fencing to the north and south of the crossing have yet to be installed. It’s anticipated work on the project will be finished by the end of the year.
“Wildlife is more likely to enter the tunnel if they can see that light is coming in, so they don’t perceive it as dangerous or a trap,” said Dean.
“Above the atrium, there’s actually going to be a structure to prevent snow from piling in... That’s not finalized yet. It’s still being developed.”
About three kilometres of fencing will be installed to help deter animals from crossing the highway and guide them to the tunnel.
“It kind of acts as a funnel with the fencing so that deer and other wildlife around — like foxes and raccoons or hares — will be able to pass under the highway safely rather than going over the road where they could be struck by a vehicle,” said Dean.
Watch for Wildlife is a wildlife-vehicle collision prevention program of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation’s Atlantic Chapter. Dean says its purpose is to provide education and outreach; the group educates drivers on ways to prevent collisions with wildlife, encourages the reporting of collisions, and advocates for wildlife collision mitigation plans in road design and transportation policies in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
She said the Falmouth tunnel is a good example of what humans can do to reduce their impact on wildlife.
“It’s new technology but it’s definitely really important considering that more and more roads are being constructed and that’s fragmenting habitats,” Dean said.
Banff, Alberta is considered a leader in providing wildlife crossing structures in the country.
Studies support tunnels
A 2017 Acadia University thesis paper by Stephanie Nicole White, entitled Monitoring Mammal Movement Through A Wildlife Underpass and Culvert in Antigonish, Nova Scotia Using Remote Camera Sensing, examined the effectiveness of wildlife crossings.
White’s 153-page report, which quotes multiple studies and details the findings of her project, finds that underpasses are more economically feasible, with more versatility in design than overpasses.
“Future underpass designs in the province should be built to accommodate as many species as possible. Underpasses must be at least 3.7 metres tall and three metres in width with an openness index of at least 0.25 to allow for deer movement,” the report concludes, noting that allowing for more light via an atrium will improve overall deer usage.
Among the recommendations was the planting of native vegetation at the entrances to help provide protection from predators and make the tunnel more appealing for a variety of wildlife. Shallow-rooted native vegetation should also be planted inside the underpasses, and in heavily shaded areas, coarse woody materials should be used.
“Wildlife fencing should be mandatory for wildlife underpasses that are to pass large-sized mammals. Fencing length will depend upon the given landscape and target species but a minimum of one kilometre should be installed initially,” the report stated.
A report entitled Road-kill of Mammals in Nova Scotia, which was published in The Canadian Field-Naturalist and was referred to in White’s thesis paper, examined the road mortality of animals in the province.
The report found an average of 2,079 white-tailed deer were reported killed annually on Nova Scotia’s highways from 1999 to 2003, along with 14 moose and 33 black bear. Smaller mammals were not immune to vehicle strikes, with the most frequent mortalities being raccoons (28 per cent), porcupines (27 per cent), and skunks (17 per cent).
According to a 2003 report for the Transport Canada Road Safety Directorate, four to seven collisions between motorists and wildlife occur every hour in the country. The report found a significant increase in collisions with deer in Nova Scotia between 1996 and 2000 — from 657 to 825.
There are currently two other wildlife crossings located in Nova Scotia — one for turtles and small mammals near Antigonish and the other for larger mammals beneath the tolled portion of the Cobequid Pass — and more are being built.
“Seven large mammal wildlife crossings are planned for almost 40 kilometres on Highway 104 currently being twinned between Sutherlands River and Antigonish,” the TIR representatives noted.
Since the Falmouth underpass is in a fairly rural area, Tonet and Warburton said there are no concerns there will be loitering by the general public.
As for monitoring the effectiveness of the wildlife tunnel, the TIR spokespeople said the details are still being worked out.
“A monitoring plan to assess the use of the underpass by wildlife and the performance of the fencing is under development.”
For monitoring, White’s report recommends the use of remote cameras, set approximately 0.6 metres from the ground at a 45-degree angle, with signage outlying the study and purpose of the cameras.