Beast Crossings built with tribal knowledge drastically reduce collisions

  • The Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes worked with the Montana Department of Transportation to design and build one of the largest networks of wildlife highway crossings in the United States
  • Highway 93, formerly known as one of Montana’s most dangerous roads, has been expanded to include 42 wildlife crossings built based on traditional Native American knowledge and values.
  • According to a 2015 study, animal collisions decreased by 71%.
  • Today, more than 22,000 animals use these wildlife crossings every year, as camera traps show.

FLATHEAD NATION, Montana – When the Montana Department of Transportation proposed a plan in 1989 to address safety concerns on Montana’s notoriously dangerous Highway 93, its response was to widen it to five lanes. Including a fast lane, the highway would cut through the entire Flathead Indian Reservation and grow more than 90 kilometers (56 miles) over Indigenous sovereign land.

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Community tribal members have expressed concern that such a road could pose a greater hazard, not only to wildlife but also to children and school buses crossing the highway. Conservation of wildlife is also part of a generational obligation that tribes take on to maintain a healthy ecosystem and nurture connection with their culture.

So they came up with another plan.

“Animal’s Bridge” from the air on Highway 93 in Flathead Nation. Image courtesy of Stories for Actions.

“Because this happened on a stretch of road that went through a sovereign nation…they had this veto card in their hand to be able to say, ‘No, we’re not doing that. That’s not how we do it here,’” said Michael Jamison, campaign manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Working with a Seattle architectural firm, Jones & Jones, the Salish and Kootenai tribes used indigenous knowledge from indigenous wildlife ecologists to design safe highway crossings for wildlife and humans. The plan included 42 crossings. In late 2000, the MDT signed a memorandum to work with the tribes on the improved highway.

Today the results speak for themselves.

A black bear using an overpass. Image courtesy of CSKT & MDT.

Camera traps placed along 29 crossings confirm that more than 22,000 animals use the crossings annually.

“Within two years, our tribal and wildlife departments installed cameras and were amazed at how often these animals used them,” said Tony Incashola, former director of the Selis Qlispe Culture Committee. “The deaths on the highways have been reduced enormously.”

A white-tailed buck using one of the Highway 93 intersections. Image courtesy of CSKT & MDT 2009.

A 2015 study found that traffic accidents were reduced by 71%.

Road experts and tribal leaders interviewed by Mongabay point out that highway crossings are not only a win for safety and wildlife, but also for building working relationships and practices that can be applied in addressing other challenges.

“With a little compromise, a little creativity, and a little more elbow grease,” Jamison said, “you can actually solve much bigger problems that have to do with culture, meaning, and values.”

Banner image: A white-tailed deer pictured using one of the many freeway underpasses with a butterfly resting on its head. Image courtesy of CSKT & MDT.

Alexandra Christy is a digital journalist and storyteller. You can find her work at alexandrachristy.com.

Mike DiGirolamo is Mongabay’s Audience Engagement Associate. Find him on Twitter @MikeDiGirolamo, Instagram or tick tock via @midigirolamo.

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