NC DOT to create 'wildlife corridors' to help bears pass safely underneath I-40

Posted November 28, 2021 1:20 p.m. EST
Updated November 29, 2021 4:23 a.m. EST

— Wildlife deaths caused by vehicle collisions are rapidly rising. Just in the last three months, nine bears were killed in the Pigeon River Gorge at the North Carolina-Tennessee border.

As North Carolina becomes more developed, and more tourists come to visit the mountains, officials expect that animal deaths are only going to increase.

Officials say more than 26,000 travelers pass through the Pigeon River Gorge on Interstate 40 every day.

"The gorge is absolutely rich with lots of other species that people don't know about," said Jeff Hunter, senior program manager with National Parks Conservation Association in Asheville.

Bobcats, deer and bears were all captured on research cameras just miles away from the interstate.

"The fact that we see so many bears along the highway is an indication the population is doing well," he said.

Hunter said as the human population grows in the area, "there's going to be more conflict."

In the last four years, at least 92 bears have been killed in a car crash.

Sometimes, crossing the interstate is key to survival.

"They've got to eat. And if it's not here, they're going to look there," he said.

The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project is a partnership between the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Safe Passage, Inc to help to create safe pathways for animals to get from one side of the interstate to the other.

Wanda Austin, division engineer for the NC DOT, said the project will add "wildlife corridors, so the wildlife can safely pass underneath."

"This is just the beginning of the collaboration," she said. "This is definitely not going to be the end of this."

The construction is expected to last about 6 months, and once it's complete, the bear and the deer will be able to cross below.

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