Illinois DOT Tailors Mowing Program to Pollinator Needs

The Illinois Department of Transportation recently kicked off its statewide mowing campaign, which will continue until August 15; an effort the agency said plays a key role in its pollinator preservation efforts.

[Above photo by Illinois DOT]

During the summer months, the agency said it conducts two primary types of mowing. The first is safety mowing, which occurs directly adjacent to the road as needed. The second and more involved operation is maintenance mowing, which lasts for approximately six weeks – from around July 1 through August 15.

Meanwhile, maintenance mowing encompasses areas next to culverts, ditches, traffic control devices and other structures, while following the Illinois Monarch Project Mowing Guidelines for Pollinators, protecting as much habitat and nectar resources as possible, Illinois DOT noted.

The agency added that its mowing schedule helps to minimize the impact on the traveling public while encouraging pollinator activity that aids in the reproduction of flowers, fruits, and vegetables that are essential to the state’s ecosystem and economy.

Reducing the amount of land maintained and growing pollinator habitat also protects the endangered rusty patched bumble bee and the monarch butterfly, the latter of which is the official state insect of Illinois, the department pointed out.

“Timely, strategic mowing is an essential part of Illinois DOT’s green efforts,” said Omer Osman, the agency’s secretary, in a statement. He added that, in 2020, IDOT joined in the launch of the Illinois Monarch Action Plan as part of the Illinois Monarch Project, a collaborative effort with local and state partners to help ensure the survival and successful migration of monarchs by increasing and protecting habitat.

Roadway mowing operations can also provide other benefits as well in other areas of the country. For example, the Wyoming Department of Transportation recently noted in a 2023 video that while its mowing operations improves visibility for drivers and removes forage, which helps keeps wildlife away from the roads, it also helps with winter highway maintenance needs as well.

“Most of the reason we mow is to help prevent drifting,” explained Carson Morales, a heavy equipment operator for the agency, in that video. “When the grass is high, it gives the snow more places to catch. The wind keeps piling it in there and we can’t do much with it once it gets stuck there.”

SCDOT Helps Revamp Island’s Palmetto Tree Plan

The South Carolina Department of Transportation, in collaboration with Dominion Energy and the Town of Sullivan’s Island, recently helped revamp a 2024 utility project to eliminate the need to remove more than 500 palmetto trees.

[Above photo via SCDOT]

After further consideration and with support from SCDOT and the Town of Sullivan’s Island, Dominion Energy has agreed to a new plan that scales back the initial cutting by 269 trees. In addition, SCDOT and Dominion Energy will each contribute to a local non-profit to support the replanting of new palmetto trees and other species on the island.

Nine of the trees that have been classified as historic palmettos will be relocated around Fort Moultrie, the agency added.

“The Palmetto Tree is the State’s tree. It is a symbol of our pride in our community and an iconic representation of what it means to be a South Carolinian,” noted SCDOT Secretary Justin Powell in a statement.

“I’m proud of the work our SCDOT employees did to help navigate the safety issue at hand while ensuring we preserved as many of these historic trees as possible,” he said.

“Sullivan’s Island is where, in 1776, the palmetto earned its place on our flag and in our hearts, so this is a very positive resolution for the island and the state,” added Patrick O’Neil, the town’s mayor. “We greatly appreciate the efforts of Secretary Powell and the SCDOT team for their leadership in achieving it, and we thank Dominion Energy for their engagement and collaboration.”  

State departments of transportation across the country are involved in a host of similar plate and tree preservation efforts.

For example, since mid-2023, a team of landscape architects from the Washington State Department of Transportation has worked with the University of Washington’s Botanic Gardens and Seattle Parks to select and plant native flora and create habitats for wildlife on Foster Island; an area that previously served as a construction zone for the 520 bridge project.

WSDOT noted that its work crews spent the last year moving topsoil, boulders, and trees into the former bridge construction zone – as well building irrigation systems and crushed rock paths to mark trails for park visitors.

Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Transportation is gearing up to support wildflower season along roadways statewide.

The agency has been planting and maintaining wildflowers on highway right of way since the mid-1930s and TxDOT Vegetation Specialist Travis Jez said the agency’s wildflower program works not just in springtime, but throughout the year.

And in Tennessee, a new $3 million-plus state DOT landscaping project will seek to beautify a long stretch of highway in the Chattanooga area.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation said the U.S. 27 landscaping project – awarded to Stansell Electric Company – will include the planting of trees, shrubs, prairie grasses, wildflowers, and a variety of other ground cover crops as well as the installation of an irrigation system.

WSDOT to Begin Fish Habitat Reconstruction Project

The Washington State Department of Transportation plans to start work on a new project on July 8 that will help re-establish fish habitat in the Pilchuck River along State Route 92 near Granite Falls.

[Above photo by WSDOT]

The agency said in a statement that this particular project seeks to replace a protected fish habitat made from “woody debris” that recently washed away with a more permanent solution.

Contractor crews working for WSDOT will build log jacks, or groups of four to six logs tied together in a pyramid with an anchor in the middle. The log jacks will be placed along a bend in the Pilchuck River near SR 92 to create natural habitat for fish to rest and hide, increasing fish survival rates as they move through the river.

The Pilchuck River severely eroded its banks in 2009 south of Granite Falls near SR 92, WSDOT said. Over a period of years, that river erosion caused a house to be swept away by the waters and leaving the SR 92 roadway within 40 feet of being completely undermined.

In 2016, WSDOT temporarily rerouted the river to shore up the riverbank and added large pieces of wood in the river to create fish habitat. In the years since, the work successfully protected SR 92, but much of woody debris placed for fish washed away. That’s why this project is installing log jacks in their place, WSDOT said, as those jacks create a more permanent and resilient fish habitat.

The agency said the jacks will be placed in the Pilchuck River in August, when work in the water can take place without harming fish – with the project fully completed by the fall 2024. 

Tennessee DOT Program Taps for Pollination Aid

The Tennessee Department of Transportation is helping create habitats for the Monarch Butterfly and other pollinators through the U.S. postal service; mailing packs of milkweed seeds to any state resident who wants to plant the flower that serves as the iconic orange and black insect’s exclusive egg-laying crib.

[Above photo by the Tennessee DOT]

Milkweed naturally grows around the country, but extreme heat and drought have reduced the number of milkweed plants in North America. Fewer milkweed plants mean fewer Monarchs, and fewer Monarchs mean less pollination for all plant life.

Tennessee DOT started Project Milkweed in 2023, “and we had a good response,” said Michael McClanahan, the agency’s transportation manager in the highway beautification office. As the word spread that Tennessee DOT would send free seeds to people to plant in their gardens, the demand for the tiny seeds ramped up, “and it wound up going viral.”

After replenishing their supply of seeds a few times because of overwhelming demand, the agency finally ran out of seeds and had to stop taking orders. Final total: 780,000 packs of milkweed seeds mailed out across Tennessee in 2023.

At 20 seeds per pack, that’s more than 15 million seeds Tennessee DOT spread to all corners of the Volunteer State.

“We knew we had lightning in a bottle,” McClanahan said, with department staffers so busy keeping up with the demand that, “honestly, we’re struggling to do some after-action reporting on it.”

Tennessee DOT restarted the program this June to coincide with National Pollinator Week. Tennessee residents can request one pack of either red milkweed seeds for small gardens or common milkweed seeds for larger areas.

Milkweed is ideally planted in early fall, with the plant usually flowering in July; meaning those sent out 2023 seeds are set to bloom in this year, in 2024. Although the Monarch Butterfly will feed from – and pollinate – a variety of plants that have nectar, the insects seek out milkweed to lay their eggs because the caterpillar that emerges from its egg can only feed on milkweed leaves.

That species of butterfly is also an impressive migrator and it makes an annual winter trek to the mountains of central Mexico in a trip that takes up to four generations of butterflies to complete.

Because of their short life spans, Monarchs will stop along the way, lay eggs, and die, passing a DNA roadmap to their offspring, who will take the baton and continue the trip that their great-grandmothers started.

Entomologists have been sounding the alarm for years that the winter gathering of Monarchs in Mexico are getting smaller. A World Wildlife Fund report estimated the number of Monarchs making the trip in 2023-2024 may have been 59 percent lower than the previous winter.

“They are critically threatened,” Tennessee DOT’s McClanahan said. “This program is something we were able to do that was a little more targeted to what the Monarchs need.”

The agency has been recognized in the past for its efforts to aid pollination. In January, the department received the 2023 Pollinator Roadside Management award from the North American Pollinator Partnership Campaign for its roadside practices.

McClanahan noted that his office usually handles “litter pickup and landscaping, and scenic roads, but this is easily one of the most popular offerings we’ve undertaken. We think it may be one of the largest seeds offerings in the country. It’s just been surprising to us how widespread the interest was among people to do the right things in their gardens.”

Inside Roadside Management at Illinois DOT

A recent Illinois Department of Transportation blog post provided an inside look at how the agency manages roadside vegetation along state roads and rest areas – work that is the specialty of Andy Star (above), who joined the agency in 2020 after nearly two decades in the private sector.

[Above photo by the Illinois DOT]

Stahr – a roadside management specialist serving Illinois DOT District 3 – is responsible for managing all the off-road, or “roadside,” conditions, in the counties of Dekalb, Kendall, LaSalle, Bureau, Grundy, Livingston, Kankakee, Iroquois, and Ford.

“This typically includes working with the district maintenance yards and deploying our Landscape Section highway maintainers in the management of roadside vegetation as well as man­agement of the rest area facilities and grounds,” he explained in the blog post. “District 3 has approximately 12,000 acres of vegetation to manage and is responsible for eight interstate rest area buildings.”

Stahr said vegetation management tasks include overseeing the implementation of mowing policy; the agency’s herbicide spraying program; and the installation of new turf, pollinator plantings or landscape plantings.

“An argument could be made that the most important impact of the work I do, in the big picture anyway, is the creation, enhancement and preservation of pollinator and prairie habitats along Illinois DOT rights of way,” he said.

“However, the most important and direct impact of my work to the traveling public is more likely keeping the rest areas open and functioning properly,” Stahr noted.

“Doing so provides a safe space for travelers to stop and rest. These facilities also provide shelter to travelers in times of severe weather. The buildings have provided a safe place for drivers during tornado-like conditions,” he explained. “We’ve also heard from truck drivers that the rest areas have literally saved their lives by providing a warm place to shelter when their truck broke down in the dead of winter and nobody can get to them due to bad road conditions.”

Sthar is a U.S. Army veteran and University of Illinois graduate with a bachelor’s in landscape architecture. While in college, he was selected as one of 17 students on a project team to travel to Agra, India, for a site visit. “We spent two and a half weeks in India and spent the semester designing a tourism corridor around the Taj Mahal,” he noted.

Following school, Stahr worked for a multidisciplinary engineering and architecture firm in multiple professional design disciplines – work experience he said “opened my eyes” to the complex nature of development projects.

“Whether it’s a new retail store or a roadway project, it takes a team of professionals to successfully complete these projects,” he said. “In the years before I joined Illinois DOT, I worked for an ecological restoration firm. That experience prepared me for vegetation management and gave me a thorough understanding of how to design, install, and maintain native plantings and pollinator sites successfully.”

Iowa DOT Details Environmental Value of Mussels

In a recent blog post, the Iowa Department of Transportation explained the long-term reasons why more than 140,000 mussels were relocated in 2016 from the waterway around a then-new Mississippi River crossing undertaken in partnership with the Illinois Department of Transportation – as well as a from a more recent bridge building effort conducted with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

[Above photo via the Iowa DOT]

In the post, Jill Garton of Iowa DOT’s Location and Environment Bureau said that mussels are waterway cleaning agents, functioning much the way the liver does in terms of removing toxins from a human being’s bloodstream.

“Freshwater mussels impact water quality,” she noted. “When you have mussels in an area, they filter impurities in the water and improve the health of the ecosystem. Without those filters, the water quality can degrade pretty quickly, putting other species at risk.”

Because mussels are sedentary creatures and can’t move out of the way when something disrupts their bed, Garton said they need to be physically moved to save them from being crushed by construction equipment. When the new bridge is finished and in place, the mussels are then relocated back into the area to continue their work as filters for river impurities.

Iowa DOT noted that it learned a lot about safely relocating mussels when building a new crossing for Interstate 74 over the Mississippi River in 2016; experience drawn upon several years later when it worked with the Wisconsin DOT to build a new highway crossing over the  Mississippi River connecting Lansing, IA, to Crawford County, WI.

While Garton pointed out that it “sounds pretty simple to just pick up a bunch of mussels and move them,” in reality, the relocation process involved several federal and state agencies. And, for the Wisconsin crossing project, since at least one species of mussel is on the endangered list, more factors came into play – such collecting the 30,000 mussels found in the area of that bridge project so they could be weighed, aged, tagged, recorded, and relocated.

“Strong working relationships with the agencies, our consultants, and our internal Iowa DOT colleagues made preparation for and completion of the relocation possible,” she noted. “The Iowa bank of the mighty Mississippi River in this area is home to an even larger mussel bed than we anticipated, but with a lot of long hours by all involved, we did it. Completing the successful relocation of the mussels not only met our environmental commitments under law but provided us with the satisfaction that we are protecting the environment that many of us enjoy in our free time outside of work.” 

State DOT Landscape Projects Transforming Infrastructure

Across the country, state departments of transportation are investing in a variety of landscaping projects to help transportation infrastructure become more “eco-supportive” of native habitats.

[Above photo by TxDOT]

For example, since mid-2023, a team of landscape architects from the Washington State Department of Transportation has worked with the University of Washington’s Botanic Gardens and Seattle Parks to select and plant native flora and create habitats for wildlife on Foster Island – an area that previously served as a construction zone for the 520 bridge project.

In a blog post, WSDOT noted that its work crews spent the last year moving topsoil, boulders, and trees into the former bridge construction zone – as well building irrigation systems and crushed rock paths to mark trails for park visitors.

Those crews are now planting native ferns and Oregon grape plus evergreen, dogwood, and willow trees – among other flora – that will be monitored for the next three years to ensure they thrive.

Crews placed habitat logs in the landscape to provide homes for insects that birds and small mammals will feed on; logs that also provide a great home for frogs and salamanders. The logs serve a long-term purpose, too, WSDOT noted, providing nutrients as they decay and creating fertile new ground for more plants to grow.

Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Transportation is gearing up to support wildflower season along roadways statewide.

The agency has been planting and maintaining wildflowers on highway right of way since the mid-1930s and TxDOT Vegetation Specialist Travis Jez said the agency’s wildflower program works not just in springtime, but throughout the year.

“Our overall objective is to have a regenerative side of the road that takes care of itself and is able to maintain itself,” Jez noted in a statement.

More than 5,000 species of wildflowers and native grasses decorate Texas roadsides. While part of their benefit is for beautification, they’re also important pollinator plants. Monarch butterflies rely on the wildflowers during their migrations, as do 900 other species of butterflies, bees, birds and various creatures, the agency said.

To ensure the habitats are available for the ecosystems they support, TxDOT has a delayed mowing schedule during certain times of the year to let the plants grow strong and tall.

Delayed mowing not only helps the environment, but it also is a cost-effective move that allows TxDOT to focus labor force and funding on other projects for a couple of months, the agency said.

When TxDOT does mow the fields, the agency said that helps disperse seeds into the ground to sprout up the next season. In addition, it helps clear any debris covering the soil to allow for the seeds to make better contact. Depending on the need for more wildflowers in a certain area, TxDOT said it will plant up to 30,000 pounds of seeds each year.

And in Tennessee, a new $3 million-plus state DOT landscaping project will seek to beautify a long stretch of highway in the Chattanooga area.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation said the U.S. 27 landscaping project – awarded to Stansell Electric Company – will include the planting of trees, shrubs, prairie grasses, wildflowers, and a variety of other ground cover crops as well as the installation of an irrigation system.

“This landscaping project is the first of its kind, and we’re delighted it’s been let to construction,” noted Daniel Oliver, Tennessee DOT’s Region 2 assistant chief engineer, in a statement.

Work on this landscaping project is scheduled to begin in mid-2024 and should be wrapped up by December 2025.

“Our partnership with the Tennessee Interstate Conservancy has played a critical role in the advancement of this project,” Oliver added. “Upon completion, the project will beautify an important corridor in the Chattanooga area and enhance the natural scenic beauty of the Tennessee landscape.”

Tennessee DOT Wins 2023 National Pollinator Award

The Tennessee Department of Transportation received the 2023 Pollinator Roadside Management Award from the North American Pollinator Partnership Campaign for its efforts to enact pollinator-friendly roadside practices statewide.

[Above photo by the Tennessee DOT]

The North American Pollinator Partnership Campaign is one of the largest non-profits in the world dedicated to the protection and promotion of pollinators and their ecosystems.

The organization said it recognized Tennessee DOT for its roadside efforts – alongside those of the Partners for Pollinators Working Group – for improving Tennessee’s roadside maintenance practices. Additionally, both the agency and the Working Group were lauded for their public education efforts and pursuit of partnerships to make an ecological impact.

The Tennessee DOT’s Pollinator Habitat Program and the Partners for Pollinators Working Group is a partnership founded in 2019 between four state agencies – Tennessee DOT, along with the Department of Environment & Conservation, Agriculture, and the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency – that also includes state universities and nonprofit partners.

“Pollinators are vitally important to Tennessee’s agriculture and economy,” explained Tennessee DOT Commissioner Butch Eley in a statement. “[We are] proud of the work we’ve done, and the work of our partners, in bringing about better management of roadsides and informing the public about the critical threat to pollinators.”

The Tennessee DOT also noted it recently fulfilled all of its initial milkweed seed orders for the inaugural year of Project Milkweed. That project – launched in June 2023 – is a mail-order resource aimed at restoring landscapes and preserving habitats for monarch butterflies and other pollinator species statewide.

The agency said it distributed a total of 779,601 Red Milkweed and Common Milkweed seed packets statewide as of December 27, 2023; fulfilling orders placed by 130,903 state residents.

Tennessee DOT said Project Milkweed will return in June 2024 with another 250,000 milkweed seed packets available free for state residents upon request.

Idaho Seeks to Cut Infrastructure-Related Plastic Usage

The Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) is engaged in a broad effort to develop environmentally-friendly solutions that reduce plastic waste from entering the natural environment; particularly where infrastructure projects are concerned.

[Above photo by the ITD]

For instance, the agency is now using biodegradable erosion control loose weave “blankets” without joints that allow snakes and other wildlife to easily move over or through them. Those “blankets” play a key role in the agency’s Erosion and Sediment Control or ESC practices that prevent soil loss and reduce sediment-laden stormwater runoff in and around transportation infrastructure.

Cathy Ford, the ITD’s roadside program administrator, noted that those ESC practices – used in transportation construction, maintenance, and operations activities – can be temporary or permanent.

She noted that biodegradable material will decompose under ambient soil conditions into carbon dioxide, water, and other naturally occurring materials within a time period relevant to the expected service life to the material.

“As more DOTs require the use of natural, biodegradable products, the upfront costs of purchasing the product are expected to decrease based on efficiency of scale,” Ford added in a statement.

The ITD said that plastics are commonly used as ESC solutions due to their availability, durability, and low cost, but they are rarely recycled, ending up in landfills or breaking down into micro-plastics, which are an emerging pollutant of concern.

Pieces of plastic netting can contaminate waterways and interfere with aquatic resources, the department noted, with plastic erosion control materials potentially ensnaring and killing fish and wildlife, interfering with highway mowing equipment, creating garbage, and resulting in added costs for removal and disposal.

The agency noted that older “photodegradable” plastics can still be intact a decade after construction projects are completed if vegetation prevents sunlight from breaking down the plastic. When these photodegradable plastics do break down, they continue to be a hazard to natural ecosystems as a micro-plastic, ITD explained. By contrast, biodegradable products typically degrade within one to two years into naturally occurring substances.

FHWA Issues $110M in Wildlife Crossing Project Grants

The Federal Highway Administration recently issued $110 million in grants to 19 wildlife crossing projects in 17 states, including four projects overseen by Native American tribes.

[Above photo by the Arizona DOT]

According to a statement, FHWA said its data indicates there are more than one million wildlife vehicle collisions in the United States annually, with wildlife-vehicle collisions involving large animals resulting in approximately 200 human fatalities and 26,000 injuries to drivers and their passengers each year.

Those collisions also cost the public more than $10 billion annually, according to FHWA; a figure that includes the total economic costs resulting from  wildlife crashes, such as loss of income, medical costs, property damage, and more.

[Editor’s note: The video below shows how wildlife crossings also helps preserve the animal populations in rural areas of the country.]

This is the first round of funding from the five-year Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program, a $350 million program created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Projects selected for grants in this round of funding include:

  • The Arizona Department of Transportation will receive $24 million for the Interstate-17 (I-17) Munds Park to Kelly Canyon Wildlife Overpass Project. The project includes nearly 17 miles of new wildlife fencing tying in existing culverts, escape ramps and double cattle guards to reduce wildlife vehicle collisions along I-17 while increasing habitat connectivity for local species, particularly the elk.
  • The Wyoming Department of Transportation will receive $24.3 million to build an overpass, several underpasses, and high-barrier wildlife fencing along 30 miles of US 189 in the southwest part of the state; a rural highway corridor with a high number of wildlife-vehicle collisions.
  • The Colorado Department of Transportation will receive $22 million to build a dedicated overpass on I-25 between Denver and Colorado Springs – the state’s two most populous cities. 
  • The California Department of Transportation will receive $8 million to reduce wildlife vehicle collisions and connect animal habitats between protected State Park lands on either side of US 101. Improvements include increasing the size of an existing culvert and installing 2.5 miles of fencing at road crossings, allowing for safer roads for drivers.
  • Pennsylvania will receive $840,000 to develop a comprehensive statewide strategic wildlife crossing plan with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Pennsylvania Game Commission, and others.

FHWA noted that projects funded by this program reduce wildlife crashes, which will reduce the associated economic impact while simultaneously improving habitat connectivity to sustain the environment and improve the overall safety of the traveling public.

Meanwhile, state departments of transportation have already been working on a variety of wildlife-vehicle collision prevention initiatives over the last several years.

For example, to date, Colorado DOT said it has built more than 60 wildlife mitigation structures crossing above or under highways throughout the state. Additionally, it has installed 400 miles of high big game fencing along state and U.S. highways or next to the interstates.

In August 2022, the agency completed a wildlife overpass and underpass on U.S. Highway 160 in the southwestern part of the state; a stretch of road where more than 60 percent of all crashes are due to wildlife-vehicle collisions.

Concurrently, a research document released in July 2022 by an international pool funded study led by the Nevada Department of Transportation provides an “authoritative review” of the most effective measures to reduce animal-vehicle collisions, improve motorist safety, and build safer wildlife crossings.