Success of wildlife corridors in Banff National Park has advocates wanting more

EXSHAW, Alta. — Dave Cipollone knows the dangers wild animals can pose to drivers on the Trans-Canada or other highways in and near Banff National Park.

The 42-year-old paramedic and firefighter from Canmore, Alta., has responded to numerous collisions between vehicles and deer, moose and elk in the 15 years he's been in the area.

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Some of them have been horrific.

"The worst accidents are when large ungulates ... get hit by a sedan-style vehicle (that) takes the legs out on the animal and the animal comes through the windshield," Cipollone said in a recent interview.

"That's absolutely the worst-case scenario. Secondary to that is where people swerve to avoid a large animal ... but then inadvertently drive into ongoing traffic."

The Trans-Canada Highway inside Banff National Park is lined on either side with 2.4-metre-high, reinforced wire fences. There are six wildlife overpasses and 38 underpasses to protect humans and animals.

"My impression is that we are seeing next to no collisions in the fenced areas and we're seeing most of the collisions outside of the fenced areas," said Cipollone.

But there are still wildlife fatalities, says the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, which has been a longtime advocate for animal protection.

Hilary Young, senior Alberta program manager, said the most dangerous spot is a 40-kilometre stretch of highway between Banff and the Kananaskis River to the east.

"There's around 60 or so wildlife mortalities because of vehicle collisions every year. We're talking elk, deer, grizzly bears, wolves and occasionally cougars," she said as she looked down from a highway overpass on a long line of cars, trucks and semis below.

As many as 30,000 vehicles drive through the area every day, she said.

The first wildlife overpass in the park was installed in 1996. Young said it's made a huge difference in animal safety. Fencing keeps animals off the road and directs them towards the safe crossings.

"Over the span that they have existed, they've reduced wildlife mortality by 80 per cent, which is incredible. For deer alone and other ungulates, it's 96 per cent, so they're very effective."

Young did say that it can take a while for certain species to get used to the crossings.

"Grizzlies usually take about five years to really start using them on a regular basis. Elk may start using them as they're being built. They're less discerning."

Demand for more highway protection escalated in April when seven elk were hit and killed by a semi-trailer near Canmore.

Yellowstone to Yukon was thrilled when the Alberta government set aside $20 million for wildlife protection in its fall budget. A long-awaited overpass east of Canmore — a site of frequent collisions with wildlife — and an underpass in the Crownest Pass in southwestern Alberta are to be built.

"That particular location was identified because it's a hot spot for collisions and specifically for species at risk, like grizzly bears," said Young. "This new overpass in the Bow Valley will be the first outside of a national park in Alberta."

A spokesperson for the Transportation Ministry said the department will continue to monitor the success of crossings through the Alberta Wildlife Watch program.

Darren Reeder, executive director of the Banff-Lake Louise Hospitality Association, said building more overpasses is the right thing to do.

"Wildlife overpasses have been an international statement in conservation leadership," said Reeder.

"There have been over 200,000 wildlife movements in the 20 years that we've had wildlife passes in place. It's protected wildlife from the effects of traffic, and we've seen mortality rates drop significantly."

Construction on the new overpass is to begin in 2021.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Dec. 13, 2019.

— Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

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