everyday SCIENCE Road Watch in the Pass

At the Crowsnest Pass on Highway 3, it is not unusual to see bears, elk, cougars, and sheep ambling across the road. Before the highway was built, these animals claimed this route as part of their habitat. Now the animals must share the road with humans. The challenge for people is to figure out how this can be accomplished safely.

That’s where the program Road Watch in the Pass comes in. Developed under the auspices of the Miistakis Institute for the Rockies, the program invites local citizens to share their knowledge about animal behavior. By providing information to the local community, their contributions can help reduce the 200 collisions that occur each year to a smaller number.

Participants have a couple of different ways to share their observations. The first is by making use of an online interactive map, which allows participants to plot the exact location of an animal sighting. This information is then sent to an online database, where it is stored. Although this approach has resulted in numerous observations (about 4,500 currently in the database), it also has some pitfalls. The observations are random, and there is no way to ensure that the entire road is being evaluated. Understanding accurately where wildlife cross the road and during which season is important for the development of strategies to reduce collisions along the road.

An electronic device allows commuters to track which animals, if any, are on the road.

An electronic device allows commuters to track which animals, if any, are on the road.

To address these concerns, the project added another data collection tool—the Road Driving Survey. It is designed for commuters who travel the same stretch of Highway 3 each day. Each commuter is assigned to the specific tract of the highway along which he or she drives on a regular basis. The commuters are given an electronic device that enables them to key in which, if any, animals they see in real time. The advantage of this experimental design is that it becomes possible to evaluate more accurately where animals are crossing the highway and if there are seasonal variations in their movements. The data collected with the map and the survey complement each other, providing researchers with a more complete picture of animal behavior.

How can data like these be put to use? After 4 years of data collection, Road Watch information was used to develop a community map displaying wildlife-vehicle collisions, highlighting where they are common. Based on June 2007 observations of bighorn sheep, the Fish and Wildlife Division of Alberta Sustainable Resource Development is using conditioning techniques to encourage them to stay off the road. The goal is to reduce the number of mortalities, especially near Crowsnest Lake. Rob Schaufele, coordinator for the project, notes that the data being collected also are being used by several other agencies for planning purposes. “The community of Crowsnest Pass should be proud of their contributions to Road Watch,” says Schaufele. “It increases public and decision-maker awareness.”22

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