SANTA ANA PUEBLO, N.M. (AP) — Native American tribes, as well as state and local governments, will be able to tap into $350 million in infrastructure funds to build wildlife corridors along busy roads and add warning signs for drivers in what federal officials are billing as the first-of-its-kind pilot program to prevent collisions and improve habitat connectivity.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg rolled out more details about the program during a visit to Santa Ana Pueblo on Tuesday. Wildlife managers with the New Mexico tribe have been tracking mountain lions, elk and other animals across tens of thousands of acres in north-central New Mexico and have documented casualties along busy highways that cut through tribal boundaries.
Buttigieg visited one of the culverts under Interstate 25 near the pueblo that serves a migratory byway for animals that travel between the high desert mountain ranges that border tribal land and the cottonwood and willow forests along the Rio Grande.
He called it a great example, saying the safety solution needed in one location, like a busy crosswalk in the middle of a dense metropolitan area, is different from what is needed in an area where there are so many conflict points between traffic and wildlife.
“Whether you’re talking about the broader effects on climate that come with what we do or don’t do on everything from transit alternatives to the very design of our roads, all that is at stake in good transportation policy,” he said, adding that not all the answers need to come from Washington, just more of the funding.
Nationwide, about 200 people are killed each year in collisions involving wildlife and vehicles, federal officials said.
Buttigieg said launching the pilot program marks an important step to prevent deadly crashes, particularly in rural areas. In New Mexico, he said, there's an average of about 900 crashes per year that involve wildlife.
The dedicated funding includes more than $111 million for the first round of grants that will be issued this year. Federal officials said the program will open the door for communities that may not have previously had access to money for such projects.
Many Western states — including Colorado, Arizona, Utah and Nevada — have already invested substantially in wildlife crossings and in recent years, have adopted legislation that advocates say will allow them to capture millions of dollars in federal matching funds to build the crossings.
California is among the Western states with new legislation. It broke ground last year on what it bills as the world’s largest crossing — a bridge over a major Southern California highway for mountain lions and other animals hemmed in by urban sprawl.
New Mexico also joined the effort when lawmakers passed legislation this spring to set aside $100 million for conservation projects. That includes building the state's first wildlife highway overpasses for free-roaming cougars, black bears, bighorn sheep and other creatures.
The massive federal infrastructure law amounts to the largest investment in road and bridges in a generation. It’s also the largest single sum ever allocated to address vehicle-wildlife collisions — a problem that stretches back nearly a century, when the government first began funding the construction of highways.
Technological advances have helped wildlife managers and public safety officials in some states identify the best locations for crossings, and where they can make the biggest difference for both wildlife and motorists.
At Santa Ana Pueblo, managers have been busy collaring mountain lions, bear, elk and other species as part of a long-term effort aimed at restoring wildlife and habitat across more than 70,000 acres (28,330 hectares) of varying terrain. The price tag has stretched into the millions and has produced more than one quarter of a million GPS location points, said Glenn Harper, the pueblo's range and wildlife division manager.
That data has helped to create maps showing where animals want to be on the landscape and where they want to cross. However, Harper said even more data will need to be collected over the next year in hopes of landing more funding for the wildlife crossing work.
At one point, managers thought they had more than a dozen lions crossing through pueblo lands. That included one named “Squeaks” that traveled more than 550 miles (885 kilometers) from Santa Ana to Mesa Verde National Park and Ute Mountain Ute tribal lands in southern Colorado in search for a new home range.
U.S. Congresswoman Melanie Stansbury, a New Mexico Democrat, pointed to the lion's journey, saying safe passage for animals and the development of more crossings will have as much of an impact on cultural heritage and the creation of climate refuges as it will on safety.
“What we’re seeing is wildlife moving into new areas,” she said, “and so projects like this will help wildlife reconnect on the land to historic spaces and the spaces that will sustain them ecologically as they’re facing climate change.”