Road To Recovery

The pandemic shows rethinking highways and streets can drive down species decline

Science Matters by David Suzuki

With roads closed and vehicle traffic down during the pandemic, some animals are getting a better shot at survival.

Roads are a main driver of wildlife decline in Canada, taking their toll in myriad ways.

First, vehicles hit wildlife trying to cross roads. This has imperilled several reptile species in Canada, including the endangered Blanding’s turtle. Turtles generally reproduce late in life, so even a small number killed can lead to population declines. Because females usually wander in search of prime egg-laying habitat, they’re more likely to be killed than males.

Vehicle collisions can also have calamitous impacts on frog and salamander populations. In spring, the amphibians depart vernal pools and cross roads in massive numbers to search for mates.

Throughout Canada, roads are also a cause of declining boreal caribou populations — but not because vehicles hit them. Caribou rely on large, intact ranges to evade predators, and roads (and seismic lines) fragment that habitat, giving predators travel corridors and sightlines, and increasing their success killing caribou and other prey.

Under current land-management regimes, roads continue to be punched into undisturbed forests. Because of a failure to adequately limit the industrial footprint of mining, logging and oil and gas, most of Canada’s boreal caribou herds have been deemed unlikely to survive without significant changes to resource extraction practices.

Habitat loss drives most species decline in Canada, and roads are often a key component. They convert and fragment habitat into ever-smaller, more disturbed parcels.

As road density in Canada increases and available wildlife habitat decreases, vehicles kill ever-increasing numbers of animals searching for mates, warmth (hot asphalt attracts snakes), homes, movement corridors and food. From insects to birds, reptiles and amphibians, to opossums to bears, raccoons, cougars, coyotes and foxes, thousands of creatures are killed by cars every day.

The ecological impacts of roads and the vehicles using them doesn’t end there. Roads isolate wildlife populations from each other, decreasing genetic pools, cause behaviour modification such as altering migration routes or foraging habits, create pollution, increase noise, decrease air quality and contribute to climate change.

U.S. conservation biologist Reed Noss brought to light the terrible impact roads have on nature almost three decades ago, but conversations about their future couldn’t be more current.

In May, a New York Times story highlighted that, as folks in Maine sheltered at home and took to roads less, salamander deaths decreased significantly. Profiling the work of herpetologist Greg LeClair, it noted, “This spring his 87 citizen scientists rescued 1,487 amphibians across Maine and found another 335 dead. That is roughly four living amphibians for every one run over, double last year’s two-to-one ratio. More amphibians certainly seem to be crossing safely.”

Throughout Canada, as cities and towns that converted roads to bike lanes during lockdown enter recovery phases, city planners and others are advocating to keep the lanes open. Having fewer roads for cars increases human and wildlife health.

People are also stepping up to keep wildlife from becoming roadkill — from local volunteer-led organizations that stop cars when turtles are crossing to provinces that build roadside tunnels and fences along highways to the federal government, which has created large-mammal overpasses in Banff National Park. Numerous research projects are underway to determine how best to reclaim linear disturbances such as roads and seismic lines to help caribou recover, including felling adjacent trees to disrupt sight lines and travel corridors.

Many people are wondering how to build back better, to gain insights from our collective pause, and to rethink systems as we collectively emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.

As the New York Times notes, even protecting a species like the salamander is part of the puzzle of repairing the planet. Salamanders keep detritivores — animals that feed on dead organic material, like leaves — in check, so “soils can be nourished by slowly decomposing leaves, making forests more resilient and slowing the release of carbon into the atmosphere.”

When we look for “shovel-ready” projects as we emerge from the pandemic, let’s also look for “shovel-worthy” ones. Let’s build structures that facilitate wildlife recovery, not mortality.

We can start by reclaiming and decommissioning roads, instead of creating new ones.

With contributions from Rachel Plotkin. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

One thought on “Road To Recovery”

  1. When I first started investigating roadkill, knowing nothing about wildlife biology & before road ecology was established as a scientific discipline, I called an insurance agent picked at random from the yellow pages (yes, my opus began that long ago).

    First, the person who answered corrected my erroneous notions about “accidents” while bastardizing Gertrude Stein: a crash is a crash is a crash. From his point of view, accident implied the will of god, but crashes were avoidable 95% of the time.

    After lecturing me about the insurance industry’s categorizing collisions without attributing causes to analyze their annual cost, he advised me not to swerve if an animal materialized in front of my vehiKILL, but to slow down and steer straight ahead. (what a ghastly notion, since I’d rather spare an animal’s life than my own)

    At the end of our short, sobering interview I asked his name: Les Rhodes.

    I asked if he was kidding me. Do I strike you as someone who kids?

    No. He did not.

    But his name was the answer to solving numerous problems the pandemic exposed: NO MORE ROADS!

    All roads lead to perdition.

    Long before humanity experienced this great die off, we had been exterminating wildlife at an accelerated pace. Once a road penetrates a remote place, a predictable suite of intrusions follow. Along with easier access to take take take: animals, minerals, plants, water, entire forests, we steal land for our uses. We displace, evict and kill wildlife in the process. Roads make it easier to poach animals.

    Most of us did not need a report that analyzed the impacts of grounding people, of telling us to stay home. Without our cars & trucks zooming this way & that, of course animals enjoyed the freedom of going places without us around to whack them while in mid stride or mid slither or mid hop or mid flight.

    It is intuitive, but culture does not operate on intuition. Animals do not earn protection until the “science is in”.

    Well, now that the data shows by reigning in our restlessness, we spare tens of thousands of animal lives.

    By declaring a moratorium on road building, wildlife gains long overdue protection from our harm. And maybe, just maybe, viruses will stay put rather than being brought to market to satisfy perverse appetites for wild meat that ought to be taboo. Where else can a novel virus emerge but from cravings for novel meat?

    I am grateful for your dispatches, for the attention you pay to the wild realms, realms undergoing significant trauma on a febrile planet.

    Thank you.

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