By Susan Montoya Bryan
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SANTA ANA PUEBLO, N.M. (AP)- Native American tribes, as well as state and local governments will be able to tap into $350 million in infrastructure funds to build wildlife corridors along busy roads and add warning signs for drivers in what federal officials are billing as the first-of-its-kind pilot program to prevent collisions and improve habitat connectivity.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was expected to roll out more details about the program during a visit to Santa Ana Pueblo on Tuesday. Wildlife managers with the New Mexico tribe have documented recent mountain lion casualties along a busy federal highway that cuts through tribal boundaries.
Nationwide, about 200 people are killed each year in collisions involving wildlife and vehicles, federal officials said.
Buttigieg said in a statement issued ahead of his announcement that launching the pilot program marks “an important step to prevent deadly crashes in communities across the country and make America’s roadways safer for everyone who uses them.”
The dedicated funding includes more than $111 million for the first round of grants that will be issued this year.
Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt said there are proven practices that can prevent crashes between vehicles and wildlife, and the infrastructure funding will open the door for communities that may not have previously had access to funding for such projects.
Many Western states, including Colorado, Arizona, Utah and Nevada, have already invested substantially in wildlife crossings and in recent years, have adopted legislation that advocates say will allow them to capture millions of dollars in federal matching funds to build the crossings.
California is among the Western states with new legislation. It broke ground last year on what it bills as the world’s largest crossing _ a bridge over a major Southern California highway for mountain lions and other animals hemmed in by urban sprawl.
New Mexico also joined the effort when lawmakers passed legislation this spring to set aside $100 million for conservation projects. That includes building the state’s first wildlife highway overpasses for free-roaming cougars, black bears, bighorn sheep and other creatures.
The massive federal infrastructure law amounts to the largest investment in road and bridges in a generation. It’s also the largest single sum ever allocated to address vehicle-wildlife collisions, a problem that stretches back nearly a century, when the government first began funding the construction of highways.
Technological advances have helped wildlife managers and public safety officials in some states identify the best locations for crossings, and where they can make the biggest difference for both wildlife and motorists.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana is among those who have pushed for more funding for the effort. He said in a statement that investing in safer roadways will ensure future generations can continue to enjoy the great outdoors.
Fellow Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said the migration patterns of elk, deer, mountain lions and other animals have existed for millennia longer than paved road systems. He and Buttigieg planned to visit a stretch along Interstate 25 near Santa Ana Pueblo.
“Thinking we can change those patterns with four lanes of asphalt has resulted in dangerous driving conditions and hundreds of human fatalities on our roads each year,” Heinrich said.