Preliminary results from a study of animal movements in Alberta's Crowsnest Pass reveal they have few safe highway crossings and could benefit from additional passages along Highway 3, says the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
The non-profit organization is recording animal movements in the Jim Prentice Wildlife Corridor, in the Crowsnest Pass, approximately 210 kilometres southwest of Calgary.
Highway 3 bisects the wildlife corridor in southwest Alberta. Corridor animals regularly cross the busy route that connects Alberta and British Columbia to feed, drink and mate, the report says.
"There's as many animals on the north side of the highway as they are on the south side, so that proves that they are there, they move and they move across the highway, and they need to be able to move across," said biologist Émilie Brien, manager of the natural area for the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
The report, a first on animal movement in the area, is the result of an animal observation project established in the region in 2020 and includes 37 cameras installed along the highway.
More than 145,000 deer and elk, 612 black and grizzly bears, 568 cougars and 72 wolves were observed by the survey cameras.
The major road bisects the wildlife corridor east to west and there are many vehicle collisions with wildlife, according to Brien.
"We know that the Crowsnest Pass is a very special place for wildlife," Brien said. "We have the most diversity of [mammal] species in North America. It's part of the Y2Y — Yellowstone to Yukon — habitat, and it's a bit of a bottleneck here."
"So we wanted to better understand how [wildlife] moved along and across the highway and then to maybe help with some recommendations on mitigation strategies for the highway."
The NCC inaugurated the wildlife corridor in 2018.
Few structures in place
The 20 or so volunteers taking part in the project looked at more than 425,000 images. They identified nearly 155,000 individual animals during the first year of study.
The cameras mainly detected deer and elk, but also bears, cougars and wolves, which will help researchers determine what species are crossing the highway and where.
"We hope to add that data over wildlife movement to existing data that's been found with other research projects," Brien explained. "And then putting that all together, we can give recommendations to Alberta Transportation to what would be the best way is to mitigate these collisions and also where would be the best places to install these mitigation methods."
There are five structures where wildlife can safely cross the highway, including a bridge, a passage under the railway and three culverts.
Brien and her team installed cameras on each of these structures but found that only two of them get used by animals.
"They are used only by a few species, so not a big usage," she said.
A danger for animals and motorists
There were nearly 800 traffic accidents involving animals on Highway 3 in Crowsnest Pass between 2017 and 2021, according to data from Alberta Transportation and Economic Corridors.
For Kelly McLean, this statistic is a sad reality. The Coleman resident has struck five animals in Crowsnest Pass in the past few years, killing two deer and a bear.
Her last accident occurred about three months ago when a deer seemed to come out of nowhere and ran into the side of her vehicle.
"I was just like shocked because it's not in front of me and I'm a bad driver and he just came flying from the north," she said.
"Like, there's absolutely nowhere for you to go. Where is that fence?"
According to the resident, there is no barrier to prevent animals from crossing the highway in Crowsnest Pass except for less than a kilometre of fencing installed beside Crowsnest Lake, near the B.C. border.
In April, the province announced the construction of an animal crossing on the Trans-Canada Highway east of Canmore, the first bridge of its kind built by the province outside of the national parks.
According to data from the transportation department, daily traffic on this section of the Trans-Canada Highway is more than double that on Highway 3. On the other hand, the average number of accidents involving animals was 325 on the Trans-Canada Highway between 2017 and 2021, more than half the average for similar crashes in the Crowsnest Pass.
In an email sent to Radio-Canada, a spokesperson for Transportation Minister Devin Dreeshen said "no additional wildlife overpasses planned in Alberta."
However, the email said the department continues to assess areas where there are high numbers of animal incidents and that the department is constantly studying the possibility of using other measures such as underpasses, fences, vegetation control and signage.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada's study is being done in partnership with the Miistakis Institute and will end in 2023. The organization will then submit its recommendations to the transportation ministry.