Below is a news release from the Arizona Game & Fish Department highlighting a project connected to a larger planning effort funded, in part, by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. While RMEF supported this specific project, it also provided funding support for widespread wildlife mapping efforts to help conserve and identify movement corridors in Wyoming and across the West as well as additional financial support to accelerate western big game migration corridor conservation.
The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), in partnership with the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD), sought the grant through FHWA’s Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program for improvements along 8.4 miles of I-17 between the Munds Park traffic interchange, about 25 miles south of Flagstaff, and the Kelly Canyon traffic interchange to the north.
“I am grateful to the Federal Highway Administration for supporting Arizona’s commitment to protecting its residents, visitors and wildlife,” Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs said. “Many drivers use I-17 as a gateway to some of Arizona’s most popular treasures, including the Grand Canyon. While helping keep those travelers safe, this project will support elk, deer and other wildlife that make Arizona so special.”
The I-17 wildlife project is one of 19 nationally to receive funding through the first round of $110 million in grants from FHWA.
“We are pleased to announce the first round of grants under the Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program to projects that will significantly reduce the number of collisions between motorists and wildlife,” said Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt, who traveled to Arizona to make the announcement at Sunset Point along I-17. “These roadway safety investments will ensure that motorists and wildlife in Arizona get to their destinations safely and are a win-win for safety and the environment.”
In addition to the wildlife overpass, which is planned for milepost 327.4 in the Willard Springs area, the project also will include new 8-foot-tall wildlife fencing tying into existing culverts, ramps to help wildlife escape fenced areas and double cattle guards at interchanges. It will connect with an AZGFD project that will retrofit wildlife fencing along 6 miles of I-17 south from Munds Park that directs wildlife to two existing large bridges. The nearly 15 miles covered by these two safety projects accounted for 58% of crashes involving wildlife between 2018 and 2022 between Stoneman Lake Road and Flagstaff. In this 31.7-mile stretch, around three-quarters of all crashes between vehicles and wildlife involve elk, which can weigh up to 1,100 pounds.
The area between Munds Park and Kelly Canyon is one of three priority areas proposed by the state for new wildlife overpasses because of higher potential for collisions involving wildlife and important movement corridors identified through research. The other interstate freeway locations identified as potential sites for wildlife overpasses are I-17 near the Kachina Boulevard interchange about 6 miles south of Flagstaff, and Interstate 40 west of Parks. AZGFD has funded design plans through ADOT for these overpasses as they remain top priorities for both wildlife connectivity and safety. ADOT and its partners continue to seek funding for projects at these other two priority sites. Locations for these projects were identified through studies conducted by AZGFD, including GPS telemetry and wildlife-vehicle collision hotspot identification
Identified by the federal, state and Coconino County governments as a high priority corridor for elk movement, the 8.4 miles of I-17 through the Willard Springs area currently has no bridges and only one road culvert suitable for use by elk and deer. The wildlife overpass will be 100 feet wide and designed for use by elk, deer, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, black bears, mountain lions and smaller animals.
A projected start date will be determined in the coming months. The project will require completion of final design, including environmental review, project programming and other required steps. This process will be initiated due to the federal grant.
In 2015, FHWA awarded ADOT, AZGFD and other partners its Environmental Excellence Award for Excellence in Environmental Leadership for numerous efforts to reduce conflicts between vehicles and wildlife while connecting habitats.
“ADOT has a rich history of coordinating with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and other partners on projects that promote safety for both motorists and wildlife,” ADOT Director Jennifer Toth said. “This grant will advance these efforts in a critical corridor for recreational and commercial travel while helping elk, deer and other creatures whose habitats span northern Arizona.”
For the project funded by the Federal Highway Administration grant, Arizona Game and Fish has committed $1.5 million in matching funds along with $750,000 toward project design. AZGFD also received a $1 million America the Beautiful Challenge grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that, along with $387,000 in matching funds, will be used for the fence retrofit along I-17 south from Munds Park.
“As Arizona continues to grow, crossing structures such as wildlife overpasses and underpasses will have the dual benefit of reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions for public safety while also connecting fragmented habitats, allowing wildlife to access vital resources, preserving migratory routes, and maintaining genetic diversity,” said AZGFD Director Ty Gray. “We’re grateful to the Federal Highway Administration and our sister state agency, the Arizona Department of Transportation, for this opportunity to help ensure a wildlife legacy for future generations.”
Other notable collaborations between ADOT, AZGFD and partners including the U.S. Forest Service and Regional Transportation Authority in Pima County include:
- A reconstruction of 17 miles of US 93 in far northwestern Arizona featuring three wildlife overpasses and two bridged underpasses in desert bighorn sheep habitat, complemented by three underpasses on State Route 68 between Bullhead City and Golden Valley.
- A system of crossing and fencing on SR 260 east of Payson designed to reduce crashes involving elk and deer.
- A 6-mile reconstruction of SR 77 (Oracle Road) north of Tucson that included an overpass and underpass connecting wildlife habitats in the Santa Catalina and Tortolita mountains.
- Two wildlife underpasses and 6 miles of fencing added to SR 86 between Tucson and Sells.
(Photo credit: Arizona Game & Fish Department)