Illinois DOT Supporting Highway ROW Bird Habitat Efforts

An initiative to “Give BIRDS the ROW” in terms of creating big habitats in highway rights-of-way is expanding across Illinois – with new support from the Illinois Department of Transportation.

[Above photo by the Illinois DOT]

The program originated with the installation of birdhouses for “prothonotary warblers” along the Lost Bridge Trail near Illinois DOT’s headquarters in Springfield, IL. The program’s goal is to restore diverse bird species on rights-of-way or ROWs under the control of Illinois DOT. In its latest effort, a group of Illinois DOT employees recently helped install bluebird houses, provided by the McHenry County Audubon Society, at the Coalfield Rest Areas on I-55 near Litchfield in Montgomery County.

Posted in short-grass, open-yard habitats, these birdhouses not only provide a resting spot for bluebirds but also attract other native bird species.

“In total, four bluebird houses have been posted so far: two at the northbound Coalfield Rest Area and two at the southbound Coalfield Rest Area,” said Jarod Hitchings, who works as a photogrammetrist for the agency, in a statement. [Editor’s note: “Photogrammetry” is the use of photography in surveying and mapping to measure distances between objects.]

“The in­stallation of more houses are planned for prothonotary warblers along the Spoon River and for bluebird houses at rest areas and other appropriate short-grass, park-like habitats maintained by Illinois DOT,” he said.

Fellow Photogrammetrist Brenda Anderson joined Hitchings – who both work for the agency’s bureau of design and envi­ronment – to install those birdhouses. They received assistance from Illinois DOT District 6 Roadside Management Specialist Mike Staab and Junior Construction Inspection Technician Marcell Lare, Roadside Maintenance Manager Stephanie Dobbs, District 8 Acting Rest Area Manager Jacob Cuff, and District 5 Roadside Manager Scott Hall.

Illinois DOT Design and Environment’s Bicycle and Pedestrian/ADA Policy Engineer Steve Letsky also donated handcrafted birdhouses he built on his own for this effort.

“Operations and Design and Environ­ment have worked well together to pro­mote declining bird species,” Hitchings noted. “Partnering with the district offices, we have truly made this a statewide effort to promote a healthy environment for our feathered friends. Birds are a sentinel species and are a signal that the natural landscape is healthy for all wildlife.”

“We hope to grow this program and install a variety of houses at different locations as the habitat and range indicate,” Dobbs added. “In the future, if interesting species find homes on our right of way, we would like to do a webcam or something similar to share it with employees and the public.”

State departments of transportation across the country are involved in a number of efforts to protect and preserve bird species where possible.

For example, a mitigation program operated by the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation aims to reduce the risk of wildlife hazards by providing a variety of training and support options for both airports and aircraft.

“Flocks of birds taking flight, deer crossing runways, and other such hazards can cause serious damage to property and even loss of life,” noted Rajendra Kondapalli, the program’s manager, in a statement. “Our program focuses on reducing that risk and increasing safety for aircraft that fly in and out of airports across our state.”

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Transportation recently helped test ultrasonic bat “deterrence devices” at two bridges to help keep the mammals away from such structures when they undergo maintenance and/or repair activity.

The agency noted that bats like to roost in bridge expansion joints and temporarily preventing such roosting during bridge maintenance repair activity typically requires installing physical barriers that are often difficult to establish effectively, due to the design characteristics of many structures.

More importantly, the Minnesota DOT does not necessarily want to keep bats away permanently from its bridge as they provide safe roosting areas. Thus, the agency worked with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the last two years testing battery-operated ultrasonic deterrence devices that reduce bat activity at bridge sites when activated but ensure a quick return of bat roosting activity when deactivated.

Wyoming DOT Wins Environmental Award for Bridge Project

The Wyoming Department of Transportation recently received a 2022 Environmental Excellence Award in the category of Ecosystems, Habitat, and Wildlife from the Federal Highway Administration for its role in the Snake River Bridge reconstruction and wildlife crossing integration project. The award is one of 14 conferred by FHWA nationwide in various environmental categories. 

[Above photo by the Wyoming DOT]

Wyoming DOT – along with the Wyoming Game and Fish agency, Teton County, and other community organizations – designed a project for the replacement of a critical bridge on Wyoming Highway 22 over the Snake River, near Jackson, and expanded it to accommodate local and migrating wildlife within the Greater Yellowstone National Park ecosystem.

FHWA cited Wyoming DOT’s exemplary “achievement and extensive stakeholder collaboration, community engagement, and environmental considerations” in granting the award.

The wildlife underpasses and three additional wildlife crossings built by this project should provide for “safer movements”, especially for large animals such as moose, elk, and deer. 

The agency is also implementing additional improvements that will enhance recreation and natural resource education in the nearby Rendezvous Park with work that will include increasing wetlands along ponds, constructing a boardwalk, and making a swimming hole deeper. 

Construction on this project should begin in the spring of 2023, Wyoming DOT noted.

This follows a joint effort by Wyoming DOT and the Wyoming Game and Fish agency launched in 2019 that committed a combined $2.5 million toward installing wildlife crossings along US 189 in southwest Wyoming – known as the “Dry Piney” project – to help reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions.

The purpose of the improvements is to support positive public interaction with the natural environment while addressing the needs of the ecosystem, noted Wyoming DOT Director Luke Reiner in a statement.

“We appreciate the recognition and affirmation from the FHWA that this is a special project that will benefit not just the transportation of motorists but of wildlife, too,” said WYDOT director Luke Reiner. “I am grateful to our partners who were instrumental in shaping this project into an award-winning success.”

State departments of transportation in many parts of the country are working to improve wildlife crossings across a variety of transportation projects.

For example, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife agencies completed wildlife underpasses along a rural stretch of Interstate 25 between Colorado’s two largest cities, Denver and Colorado Springs, in October 2021.

That wildlife mitigation system is part of a $419 million transportation improvement project – known as the I-25 South Gap project – that aims to improve safety and travel on 18 miles of I-25 south of the Denver metropolitan region; a route that more than 87,000 motorists use on a daily basis.

In February, the Nevada Department of Transportation began closing stretches of U.S. 50 between State Route 341 and Chaves Road in Dayton, NV, to install high livestock fencing on both sides of the highway largely along rural roadway stretches to reduce vehicle-horse collisions.

The Nevada DOT is also placing roadway lighting on the highway at the end of each fenced section for enhanced visibility for motorists.

In addition, in April, the Oregon Department of Transportation recently received a special one-time allocation of $7 million in general funds from the Oregon legislature to invest in wildlife corridor projects statewide. The Oregon DOT said it has had “great success” with wildlife undercrossing structures in recent years, with five crossings built to date in the state, all on U.S. 97, leading to an 86 percent reduction in wildlife-vehicle collisions.

NCDOT Program Seeks to Reduce Wildlife-Aircraft Strikes

A mitigation program operated by the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation aims to reduce the risk of wildlife hazards by providing a variety of training and support options for both airports and aircraft.

[Above photo by NCDOT]

The agency said North Carolina airports average at least one bird or other wildlife strikes upon aircraft per day, which can cause significant damage. For example, in 2018, an aircraft landing at a general aviation airport sustained more than $800,000 in damage when it struck two of six white-tailed deer crossing the runway. On top of that, the Federal Aviation Administration Wildlife Strike Database​ – which tracks wildlife strikes – estimates that only one in five strikes are reported, which adds up to a significant threat to property and life.

“Flocks of birds taking flight, deer crossing runways, and other such hazards can cause serious damage to property and even loss of life,” noted Rajendra Kondapalli, the program’s manager, in a statement. “Our program focuses on reducing that risk and increasing safety for aircraft that fly in and out of airports across our state.”

The wildlife program, offered through a cooperative agreement with the Wildlife Services Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides five regional trainings and assessments of one-third of the state’s 72 public airports each year. It also provides “quick-response” management activities for airports experiencing wildlife hazards. 

That “quick response” program provides both proactive and reactive management, NCDOT said, such as harassing geese, gulls, raptors, and other birds using pyrotechnics, habitat management, and, if warranted, lethal control. The USDA may live trap and relocate hazardous raptors such as hawks and falcons to suitable habitats miles away from the airport.   

Trainings provide instruction and hands-on practice in identifying common animal species, potential habitats, and food sources that attract animals to airports and methods to deter wildlife using safe methods from interfering with airport operations.

The wildlife management assessments offered through the program include an airport site visit to conduct a bird and mammal hazard survey and an assessment report with wildlife observations, habitat attractants, and mitigation recommendations based on USDA’s observations. This can range from proper grass height, tree removal, proper fencing, and agriculture near the airfield. “These trainings are very important because they help the airports better understand the hazards on their airfields and what they can do to mitigate them, short-term and long-term,” noted Chris Willis, western district supervisor for the USDA Wildlife Services in North Carolina, who provides the training. “It also helps the aviation [divisions] understand the needs the airport may have or what hazards exist.”

‘Biomonitors’ Help Arizona DOT Protect Endangered Species

The Arizona Department of Transportation recently illustrated in a blog post how ‘biomonitor’ teams from Northern Arizona University or NAU help the agency’s crews find and relocate endangered species – including snakes, birds, and fish – from construction sites.

[Above photo by the Arizona DOT]

Specifically, the biomonitor teams train construction workers and others involved in transportation projects to identify any endangered species and what to do if they come across one. The teams also monitor construction activity and help safely remove any endangered species out of harm’s way. 

For example, for an Arizona DOT project to protect the I-17 Verde River Bridge footings – set to wrap up later this spring – agency crews built earthen bypass channels to contain river flow, allowing them to work outside of the river area safely. Simultaneously, the biomonitor team removed all fish from pools that required filling in, while also rescuing fish stranded during river relocation work.

Next, the biomonitor team identifies the endangered species it finds, photographing and measuring them, and then releases them back into the Verde River downstream from the construction area.

“The relocation distance varies, but it’s typically about 50 to 150 yards from the capture point,” noted Dr. Erika Nowak, an assistant research professor at NAU, who heads up the biomonitor team for the I-17 Verde River Bridge project.

“We don’t want to release the animals too far away, as moving them out of their home range can disrupt their behavior, cause them to become disoriented, and thus more likely to die,” she added.

This is one of several efforts by Arizona DOT to preserve both animals and plants considered endangered species.

The agency recently completed a bridge replacement project near Globe, AZ, which triggered the return of an endangered species of cactus transplanted and preserved by the agency during the project’s four-year timeline.

The U.S. 60 Pinto Creek Bridge is home to the endangered hedgehog cactus, which grows only within a several-mile radius of the site. About a foot high, usually covered in spines and often with red flowers at the top, the species is listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is protected under Arizona law. When the bridge replacement project began in 2018, a team comprised of biologists from the Arizona DOT and from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix safely removed 34 cacti potentially affected by the construction work, then nurtured and propagated, replanting 61 total cacti in early March.

Arizona DOT Wraps up Cactus-Saving Project

The Arizona Department of Transportation recently completed a bridge replacement project near Globe, AZ, which triggered the return of an endangered species of cactus transplanted and preserved by the agency during the project’s four-year timeline.

[Above photo by Arizona DOT]

The U.S. 60 Pinto Creek Bridge is also home to the endangered hedgehog cactus, which grows only within a several-mile radius of the site. About a foot high, usually covered in spines and often with red flowers at the top, the species is listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is protected under Arizona law.

When the bridge replacement project began in 2018, a team comprised of biologists from the Arizona DOT and from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix safely removed 34 cacti potentially affected by the construction work, then nurtured and propagated, replanting 61 total cacti in early March. This relocation effort is the latest step in a long-term partnership between the Arizona DOT and the Desert Botanical Garden to protect hedgehog cactuses that only grow in one tiny area of the state.

“ADOT has a responsibility to respect the environment and to make sure the plants and animals that make Arizona special are protected,” said Josh Fife, Arizona DOT’s biology team lead, in a statement. “We’re proud that the work we did will make sure the Arizona hedgehog cactus will continue to exist in the one special place in the world where they thrive.”

This cacti protection effort took on added importance in the summer of 2021, when wildfires swept through the project site, threatening some of the cacti in that area that were not removed because they were not threatened by construction.

“The plants on site could have easily been destroyed in the fire which is why it was a good thing these plants were taken back to Desert Botanical Garden out of harm’s way,” noted Steve Blackwell, conservation collections manager for Desert Botanical Garden.

“That was an important side benefit of taking cactus out when we did. Another valuable part of this process was that we were able to hand pollinate the plants at the Garden, clone the mother plants and develop a seed bank for future preservation,” he added. “This is a great win for the environment”

Oregon Legislature Issues Wildlife Corridor Funding

The Oregon Department of Transportation recently received a special one-time allocation of $7 million in general funds from the Oregon legislature to invest in wildlife corridor projects statewide.

[Above photo by the Oregon DOT]

The Oregon DOT said it has had “great success” with wildlife undercrossing structures in recent years, with five crossings built to date in the state, all on U.S. 97, leading to an 86 percent reduction in wildlife-vehicle collisions.

Cidney Bowman, the agency’s wildlife passage coordinator, said in a statement that Oregon DOT plans to use that one-time funding not just to help fund wildlife crossing construction but also to fund studies, retrofit existing structures, and pay for research into new wildlife detection technology.

She added that, while this new funding will go a long way toward making our highways safer, Oregon DOT’s goal is to have yearly dedicated funding for wildlife corridor needs similar to how the state funds its fish passage program.

A state report issued in 2020 indicates that Oregon needs $22 million to $35 million in “immediate” funding to support wildlife crossing projects statewide.

Other states – especially in the western parts of the country – are beefing up investments in wildlife passage programs and infrastructure. For example, California and Utah both have 50 wildlife passage structures, Nevada has 23, and Colorado leads the pack at 69.

Recently, the Colorado Department of Transportation and ABCO Contracting began installing three miles of new “high deer” fencing and earthen big game ramps along US Highway 24/285; a $2.26 million project that should wrap up in early September.

Additionally, the high deer fencing will tie into existing drainage structures that are sufficiently large enough to offer crossing locations for large game. The new fencing will funnel wildlife to these locations, an important aspect of this project site, purpose, and design noted Julie Constan, the agency’s regional transportation director.

“Wildlife-vehicle collisions make up approximately 60 percent of the total crashes along this stretch of highway,” she said in a statement. “The investment made to install the fencing will show us a tremendous benefit. Studies have shown that big game-vehicle collisions are expected to go down by at least 80 percent with the aid of fencing features.”

Boom: Oregon DOT Uses ‘Fireworks’ to Drive Birds from Bridges

The Oregon Department of Transportation has a public outreach message for water birds who want to nest on two of their iconic bridges: Beat it.

[Above: Matt Alex, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, fires a “flash pistol” to scare off birds. Photo via the Oregon DOT.]

Officially, Oregon DOT is utilizing an auditory dispersal method to relocate cormorants to facilitate infrastructure maintenance, such as inspection and painting. In practice, a technician fires a pistol that flashes, pops, and whistles. The sounds and lights chase the birds from the bridges.

“It basically is a gun-like mechanism that looks like a fireworks show,” explained Angela Beers Seydel, an Oregon DOT public information officer, in describing a test of the procedure in early March. “It whizzed, it banged, it flashed.”

Both bridges are on U.S. 101, along the Pacific coast. The 4.1-mile Astoria-Megler Bridge crosses the Columbia River and connects Oregon and Washington. It is the longest continuous truss bridge in the U.S., and painting it takes more than eight years and about $75 million.

Meanwhile, the Yaquina Bay Bridge – located about 300 miles south – is an 88-year-old arch structure built by the Public Works Administration; a depression-era federal program that also financed the Lincoln Tunnel and Hoover Dam. Conde McCullough, a renowned Oregon DOT engineer (he has his own Wikipedia page) designed the Yaquina Bay Bridge – along with 14 others along U.S. 101.

The sound-and-light program will continue through September on the Astoria-Megler Bridge and through June on the Yaquina Bay Bridge.

“These birds affect our ability to conduct inspections,” noted Don Hamilton, an Oregon DOT spokesperson. He added that those inspections occur at least every two years, but that cannot happen if birds, bird nests, or bird “guano” are on the bridge. Guano, or bird droppings, also have a corrosive effect on bridges and can be toxic to humans.

One or two technicians go on the U.S. 101 bridges every day and fire off several rounds.

Seydel said the sensory assaults take place at random times “so the birds don’t recognize a pattern. You want them to be uncomfortable to be in that area.”

Recently, Oregon DOT used propane cannons, which produce louder and deeper sounds, to successfully chase away birds from the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River. Seydel said Oregon DOT might bring out those “big guns” if the pistol sounds and flashes do not work on the U.S. 101 bridges.

“There’s also the canon, if necessary,” she said. “So, whiz, bang, boom is the possibility.”

Tennessee DOT Helping Deploy ‘Seabins’ for River Cleanup

The Tennessee Department of Transportation has teamed up with Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful (KTRB) and other partners to establish a network of 17 “Seabin” automated litter and debris removal devices across the Tennessee River watershed.

[Above photo by the Seabin Project]

Seabin devices work continuously to skim and collect marine debris from the surface of the water. Each receptacle can remove up to 3,000 pounds of marine debris annually, while also filtering out gasoline, oils, and “micro-plastics” from the water.

Grants from the Tennessee DOT and the national Keep America Beautiful organization provided the funds supporting this deployment of the Seabin devices.

The Tennessee DOT’s contribution includes the purchase and installation of 10 devices at locations throughout Tennessee, as well as funding for two years of water-based cleanups of the river and its tributaries within the state – funding made in conjunction with the agency’s “Nobody Trashes Tennessee” litter prevention campaign.

“[Our] partnership with Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful demonstrates the link between roadside litter and debris that ends up in our waterways,” explained Joseph Galbato, Tennessee DOT interim commissioner, in a statement. “Investing in this substantial network of litter removal devices is another example of how TDOT promotes innovative solutions to making our state cleaner and keeping our waterways clear.”

In addition to the 17 Seabins deployed in Tennessee, another two will deploy on the Tennessee River in Alabama, with one other placed on one of the river’s tributaries in North Carolina.

“Until now, all of our work has only been able to prevent micro-plastics in our waterways, so we are thrilled to the Tennessee DOT and Keep America Beautiful for these – as I see it – revolutionary grants and to our partners who will be maintaining the Seabins to make this trailblazing project possible,” added Kathleen Gibi, KTRB’s executive director.

The Tennessee DOT is an agency known for funding different and innovative ways to reduce littering.

For example, in April 2021, the agency helped fund a pair of new exhibits at the Tennessee Aquarium illustrate how micro-plastics and other roadside trash can negatively affect the health of the ocean as well as rivers, lakes, and streams.

The new exhibits – housed in the Aquarium’s “River Journey” and supporting the Tennessee DOT’s “Nobody Trashes Tennessee” litter reduction campaign – include actual debris taken from the banks of the Tennessee River: the focus of its current Seabin deployment project.

‘Canopy Clearing’ Helping Improve Roadway Safety

Since November, maintenance crews with the West Virginia Division of Highways – part of the West Virginia Department of Transportation – have cleared more than 170 acres of trees and branches overhanging more than 500 miles of state roadways: enough trees and branches to fill up about 170 football fields.

[Above photo by the West Virginia DOT]

Called “canopy clearing,” that process is critical to improving roadway safety. According to the “Vegetation Control for Safety” manual published by the Federal Highway Safety Administration, trees growing close to a roadway can present a “fixed object hazard” to travelers, including motorists, bicyclists, and others. Grass, weeds, brush, and tree limbs can also obscure or limit views of traffic control devices –such as signs or stoplights –as well as approaching vehicles, wildlife and livestock, pedestrians, and bicycles. Thus, controlling vegetation helps reduce crashes and injuries, FHWA noted.

“Canopy clearing” adds another element for improving roadway safety, the agency noted. When trees and shrubs – particularly evergreens – in the right-of-way cast shadows on the pavement, freeze-thaw cycles may create isolated ice patches on the pavement – easily causing loss-of-control crashes. Thus “canopy clearing” or “daylighting” by cutting taller vegetation lets the sun help with thawing and ice control, while also generally helping preserve pavements by preventing the buildup of moisture on roadways during warmer months.

In the past, the West Virginia Division of Highways noted in a statement it could only remove 140 acres of the canopy a year, or 14 acres for each of the state’s 10 highway districts. However, the state lifted that restriction in 2022, allowing districts to cut more trees in between winter snows.

The agency added that, by law, its crews can only clear canopy between November 15 and March 31; a restriction designed to protect endangered bat populations, which do not typically use trees during that time span.

State departments of transportation are also working to expand their knowledge base regarding the impact of trees and shrubbery on roadway safety and pavement longevity.

For example, a 95-page research paper compiled for the Ohio Department of Transportation five years ago by Ohio University suggested designs for a “decision-making tool or process” to assist the agency with tree canopy maintenance practices, assessing the impact of trees and tree species on pavement degradation, road condition, and road safety in climatic conditions typical of Ohio.

NCDOT Providing Material for Artificial Reefs

The North Carolina Department of Transportation is providing more than 1,000 tons of damaged concrete pipe to help the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries shore up two artificial reefs.

[Above photo by NCDOT]

NCDOT sent those discarded culverts – which accumulated over the past several years as the result of an aggressive pipe replacement program in part due to damage caused by recent hurricanes – to the Port of Wilmington for eventual deployment off of the Brunswick County coast.

N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries – part of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality – maintains several artificial reefs that create habitat for fish and ideal fishing sites.

It said artificial reefs create habitat for fish by creating three-dimensional structures that replicate the ecological functions of food and refuge fish and other marine life need to survive and create “crucial” spawning and foraging habitat for many commercially and recreationally important fish species.   

The fisheries division has been working with NCDOT to find “new and cost-effective uses” for scrapped concrete pipe. Using that piping to build artificial reefs for marine life along the state’s coastline in a money saver, the agency noted – eliminating $65,000 in tipping fees to dispose of it in a construction and demolition landfill.

Ken Clark, an NCDOT district engineer, said the idea for donating the pipe arose during a conference for coastal resiliency. That is when he discovered the state’s marine fisheries division could repurpose his stockpile of precast concrete, barreled-shaped pipe to augment existing artificial reefs. 

“We had considered many options on how to properly dispose of this unusable material when we formed this unique collaboration with the Division of Marine Fisheries last year,” he explained in a statement. “This program mutually benefits both state agencies.”

Other state departments of transportation are involved in similar artificial reef construction projects.

For example, in 2020, the New York State Department of Transportation began helping expand a series of artificial reefs off the shores of Long Island as part of a three-year-long multiagency effort – dumping a retired tugboat, 16 rail cars, and a streel turbine on Hempstead Reef.

“[We are] proud to work with our sister agencies on this important program, repurposing transportation materials to expand artificial reefs and support biodiversity, fishing, and tourism,” explained Marie Therese Dominguez, NYSDOT’s commissioner, in a statement at the time.

“It is another example of how [our state] is taking bold steps to protect our ecosystems and foster sustainable economic growth that will benefit current and future generations of New Yorkers,” she said.