Researchers at Utah State University are looking for ways to make crossing the highway a little safer for wildlife, whose habitats are interrupted by highways and interstates.

As the number of miles traveled and the number of drivers on the road increases, it becomes more and more difficult for animals to get safely across highways, said John Bissonette, a scientist connected with the U.S. Geological Survey who is also a professor in the department of wildland resources at USU.

In areas where a large volume of traffic is moving through an area, people — let alone deer — can hardly make it across the road, he said.

"It's like Russian roulette, like trying to make it through a firing squad," he said.

It isn't just animals who are in danger, either. Drivers are injured and even killed each year in animal-vehicle collisions.

There is also a huge monetary cost. Bissonette said USU researchers estimate that from 1996-2001 in Utah, there were about 13,000 animal-vehicle collisions, costing an estimated $45 million in vehicle damage, injury and loss of life.

"From a purely human safety standpoint, it's an issue that has to be addressed," he said.

Part of addressing the issue, Bissonette said, is wildlife crossings such as tunnels under roads or passes over them. Part of the USU research is geared toward investigating existing wildlife crossings and evaluating their effectiveness.

Patricia Cramer, one of nine engineers and ecologists working with Bissonette on the project, said there are about 550 terrestrial wildlife passages in North America. There are 15 wildlife passages in Utah, including the first wildlife overpass built in the U.S.

Effectiveness is a complicated concept, Cramer said. There can be a tendency to put up a fence and think the problem is solved because animal-vehicle collisions have decreased, she said, but if animals are cut off from food or water sources or their traditional migratory routes, this can have a devastating impact on the animal population. Even making an effort to accommodate animals by building a tunnel under the road isn't necessarily effective, she said, since large herbivores like deer are unwilling to enter a tunnel as it goes against their instincts

Bissonette said he is focusing on permeability, an animal-centered concept that looks at the way different animals move and takes into account their needs. An ideally permeable situation, Bissonette said, would include overpasses for large animals in addition to tunnels that could be used by smaller animals. Spaced appropriately, with adequately maintained fences, these measures could make a difference for the welfare of wildlife in Utah and throughout the country, he said.

The end product of the research is a "decision tool" that will be available to engineers on the Web or in a CD-ROM. It will combine all the research done over a three-year period into a tool that engineers can use to determine what kind of crossings should be used in a given area, and how to set up those crossings and monitor their effectiveness.