Wanna step outside? State agencies building 26 wildlife crossing structures

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 27, 2023

By Dan Kibler

I have had one dangerous encounter with an animal crossing the road while I was on a highway. It was 30-some years ago, and at 6 a.m., I was heading east on U.S. 64 between the tiny eastern North Carolina towns of Creswell and Columbia, headed to Manteo to fish for trout and red drum with bass pro David Dudley, then doubling as a saltwater guide.

An approaching vehicle caused me to flick off my high-beams and go to low-beams (headlights), and before I could get back to high beams, a doe deer appeared out of nowhere, heading south to north, almost straddling the yellow lines in the center of the road, maybe 50 feet in front of me. Instinctively, I swerved right to miss her — I did — but when I jerked the steering wheel back left, aiming to get off the shoulder and back on the asphalt, my old GMC Jimmy started to spin. I tried to correct and found myself sliding backwards, eastbound, in the westbound lane, before sliding all the way off the highway and into a watery ditch, the old SUV flipping up on the passenger side.

Some prison guards who had just gotten off the late shift knocked on the driver’s side window about the same time I got out of the seatbelt. I crawled through the window, grabbed the helping hands and hopped down onto dry ground. The deer got away scot free. We don’t need to talk about the cottonmouth water moccasin we dragged out from under the passenger’s seat when I pressure-washed the interior and exterior of the vehicle an hour or so later after a short tow to a used-car lot where I refilled my oil, transmission fluid and power-steering fluid reservoirs.

My passenger side window was broken by the rear-view mirror being slammed into it. The passenger side of the fender and door were wrinkled up pretty good, but other than that, the old tank survived. I still got to Manteo — albeit a few hours late, and Dudley and I fished for reds under the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge across Oregon Inlet and later caught speckled trout in a marsh pond near Manns Harbor.

I thought about that predawn accident the other day when a press release arrived via email from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, announcing that it planned to continue to work with the N.C. Department of Transportation for the purpose of making the roads safer for automobiles and whitetails.

How? The two agencies have already partnered to locate and build 26 wildlife crossing structures across the state, most of them underpasses that allow wildlife — particularly bears and white-tailed deer to cross — under highways in places where they have traditionally crossed or where the habitat pinches them into a crossing area. Those underpasses involve fencing along the sides of the road well off the pavement funneling animals along the highway and through the underpasses.

I believe there are now a handful of wildlife underpasses along U.S. 64 in the eastern part of the state — I noticed them on my trip to the Outer Banks last fall. If you think a deer-auto accident will do thousands of dollars of damage to a sedan or pickup truck, imagine what a collision between a car and a 400-pound black bear might do to both parties. A passage corridor along Cold Springs Creek and Harmon Den Road under I-40 in Haywood County exists, and three more underpasses are on I-140 south of Wilmington in Brunswick County. The commission and NCDOT have another 11 projects in various stages of planning and design.

NCDOT reported 20,331 wildlife-vehicle collisions reported on North Carolina highways in 2019, and a 2021 estimate puts 7 percent of all vehicle crashes involving strikes with animals, almost half of them after dark from October through December.

Help is on the way from, of all places, the federal government. Included in the infrastructure bill passed by Congress in 2021 was $350 million for a wildlife crossings pilot program that will fund projects in all 50 states. According to the commission, the state legislature could allocate resources to wildlife passages that could be leveraged to match the available federal funding.

And maybe, just maybe, the next time a big doe gets ready to cross a highway in front of me when I’m hauling butt, headed to Avon to catch speckled trout, she’ll cross under my vehicle through an underpass.