Wildlife passage under I-40 in Pigeon River Gorge, 'excellent start' for bear, elk safety

It’s an iconic section of Southern Appalachian highway: a curvy, road winds through steep, forested mountains along the Pigeon River. But it was a transit corridor for creatures other than cars long before Interstate 40 was established.

Western North Carolina icons like black bears, elk and whitetail deer that live in these mountains naturally migrate across the area looking for food, mates and habitats, said Jeff Hunter, Southeast Region program manager with the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.

And wildlife will not be left out of the state Department of Transportation’s project to build a new bridge along I-40, where a wildlife underpass is planned to allow them to safely cross the busy four-lane highway at Harmon Den in Haywood County. The project, which will include temporary lane closures, could start by Nov. 15.

Plans for replacing the I-40 bridge over Harmon Den Road at Exit 7 include two paths, according to NCDOT, one on each side of Cold Springs Creek, to help wildlife migrate from one side of the interstate to the other without crossing the paths of speeding commuters and hulking tractor-trailers.

A 9-foot tall fence will guide animals to the trails, away from traffic and under the bridge, a release says, and NCDOT is weighing using wildlife guards, similar to slotted cattle guards, to keep deer and elk from walking up the exit and on-ramps.

A new bridge being built over I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge by the N.C. DOT is meant to help reduce collisions between cars and wildlife like elk, seen here, who often cross the highway in their natural migration patterns.

More: Bringing back historic wildlife migration corridors to the mountains

All those measures are geared toward encouraging wildlife to cross under the bridge to reduce the possibility of animal accidents, NCDOT says.

Hunter said he was doing jumping jacks when he saw the news.

"The reaction is a sense of great satisfaction that the collaborative, a group of folks from a whole variety of federal, state, tribal and non-governmental organizations that have come together," he said. "That's why you're seeing this. That's why this is possible."

That coalition includes the six key groups of Smokies Safe Passage, The Conservation Fund, Wildlands Network, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, the National Parks Conservation Association, Defenders of Wildlife and the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

"I'm enormously grateful to the N.C. Department of Transportation for working collaboratively with the other stakeholders," Hunter said, calling it a win-win for both wildlife and the motoring public.

Liz Hillard, a researcher with nonprofit Wildlands Network, said the area's large, iconic, charismatic species of bear, elk and deer need a lot of space to roam.

The area around Harmon Den is specifically important, she said, as elk from the western, Great Smoky Mountains National Park side of the highway - a half-million-acre wildlife sanctuary - and pass to the eastern side toward Max Patch in Pisgah National Forest, where there's a known elk population.

Liz Hillard, a wildlands scientist with the Wildlands Network, is conducting research into elk movements in the Interstate-40 and U.S. 12 corridors.

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One elk cow that researchers have collared leaves the Cataloochee Valley in the Smokies and crosses I-40 every year to have a calf, Hillard said, and there are black bears tied to acorn production in the forest that wander farther when mast yields are lighter.

"These animals that need a lot of resources need to be able to access those," she said.

A mortality hotspot

Harmon Den, near the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and two national forests, is a hotspot for wildlife-vehicle collisions, Hunter said, one of a number of similar mortality hotspots in the area.

The new passage will be critical to keep large animals like elk, which can reach 1,000 pounds, off the roadway both for their safety and the safety of motorists, he said.

"We've been really focused on, where are these hotspots of wildlife activity and crossings on the gorge," Hillard said.

In 2 1/2 years of study, she said researchers have catalogued 150 wildlife-vehicle collisions along 28 miles of I-40, one of which was an elk and the remainder deer and bear.

That equates to five every month.

On Nov. 2, Hunter drove through the area conducting a driving survey and saw two dead bears on the side of I-40 in just that one trip, he said, including one just across the highway from the sign notifying motorists they are 2 miles out from the exit where the new wildlife passage corridor is planned.

A dead black bear can be seen to the left of the guard rail on Interstate 40 Nov. 2, two miles from Harmon Den, where the state Department of Transportation is planning a wildlife passage to aid bear, deer and elk to move from one side of the interstate to the other.

More: Bridges for bears: Do wildlife corridors work?

The highway, when it was completed in 1968, fragmented public lands and severed the wildlife travel corridors animals like bear and elk have used for arguably thousands of years, he said, and when those collisions happen, they also do significant damage from a human safety standpoint.

An estimated 26,000 vehicles travel I-40 in the area, according to NCDOT data, and over the circa 56-year-old bridge, which NCDOT spokesperson David Uchiyama said is nearing the end of its service life.

Bear fatalities from vehicle collisions have been on the rise in recent years as Western North Carolina's population of up to 9,000 bears continues to grow by 5%-7% every year, according to the state Wildlife Commission.

Cars are the most likely cause of death for bears in the Asheville area, reported Colleen Olfenbuttel, black bear and furbearer biologist with state wildlife.

Smokies Safe Passage focuses on a 28-mile project area of I-40, including 8 milesin Tennessee and 20 in North Carolina, noting a 42% increase in traffic volume there in the last 16 years.

"It's an excellent start," Hunter said of the wildlife underpass included in the NCDOT plan, which is part of a larger, $19 million project to replace five bridges set to wrap up in May 2024 along the Pigeon River Gorge.

Existing and potential wildlife corridors across Interstate-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge between North Carolina and Tennessee.

More: Study: Bears in Asheville twice as big, reproduce in half the time of rural counterparts

So far, he said, NCDOT has been very responsive to conservationists' concerns, adding that the style of wildlife passage included in the plan for this first bridge in the project isn't a one-size-fits-all solution that could be implemented at each site.

Hillard, too, said the department of transportation brought them to the table, knowing of their ongoing research that included GPS collars, roadside cameras, data sets and surveys.

She said they've been working together since the start of the state's project to replace the bridges, commending the DOT for what she called an exciting project.

This wildlife passage could be the first in a linkage system of opportunities for elk to safely cross I-40, Hillard said, with hopefully plans in the future to look at a wildlife overpass of some sort.

Looking forward to the other four bridges, each will be site-specific with its own issues, Hunter said, and the group will assess those issues and come up with a design to improve safety for drivers and wildlife's ability to safely cross I-40.

The work, Hillard said, could be iconic for the Southeast and Southern Appalachians.

Starting as soon as Nov. 15, NCDOT will funnel traffic into one lane approaching the bridge from both directions, and traffic will be detoured down the ramps to bypass the bridge, with work already underway to improve the ramps themselves.

When Interstate 40 was constructed in the 1960s, engineers inadvertently left a land bridge, a swath of connected natural landscape, over the “double tunnel,” which many species of wildlife use today to traverse the Pigeon River Gorge.

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That traffic pattern could remain in place into May while crews replace the bridge, NCDOT says, offering a detour option for folks traveling to Dandridge, Tennessee, of taking Interstate 26 to Interstate 81 and into Tennessee, which it says takes 45 minutes longer than taking I-40 to Dandridge.

Before making a trip, drivers can visit DriveNC.gov to check traffic conditions, or follow NCDOT on social media.

"Some days it may take less time to drive through the gorge, and some days it may be faster to take I-26 to I-81," Uchiyama said.

Derek Lacey covers health care, growth and development for the Asheville Citizen Times. Reach him at DLacey@gannett.com or 828-417-4842 and find him on Twitter @DerekAVL.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Wildlife passage to be built under Southern Appalachian highway