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Expedition: Roadkill

Long-distance cyclists are photographing roadkill in an effort to help scientists determine how to protect various species. A new app can help you do the same.

Now that driving has lost its mojo among Millennials, maybe we'll see a decline in the horrific wildlife death toll that vehicles claim along byways and highways from Augusta to Arcata: one to two million dead animals each year. Then again, Baby Boomers are retiring in droves, trading their daily commutes for perhaps endless RV roadtrips.

Plus, the death toll could grow as climate change forces some animals to alter their migration patterns or seek food in new areas, on the other side of a highway.

There are proven means of protecting road-traversing wildlife, however. Better roadway designs, such as adding special culverts or landscaped overpasses, as well as fencing to funnel animals into these safe crossings, have helped. So do sensors that alert drivers when large animals appear to be headed for the asphalt. Road collisions have claimed a startling number of Florida panthers, but redesigned roads have lessened the toll.

A critical mass of documentation is needed before any department of transportation is coaxed into making roadway changes to reduce roadkill. It took Floridian Matt Aresco a decade to convince the DOT to make U.S. Highway 27, north of Tallahassee, safer for frogs and turtles. Before the changes were made, Aresco concluded turtles only had only a 2 percent chance of surviving the crossing, according to an article in Scientific American.

It will take armies to build up enough evidence to make roads safer, and that's what groups that study road ecology (the interaction between roads and wildlife and other aspects of the environment) are devising. Large, dispersed groups of volunteers can build up databases showing which stretches of road are most deadly to animals.

Turns out, road cyclists make the perfect soldiers in these armies. Think about it: if you're cruising down a highway at speeds exceeding 60 or even 50 miles an hour, you're not going to want to pull over and grab your camera and GPS device to document each bloody carcass. If you're slogging up a mountain pass, however, and come upon a dead deer or porcupine or bear or frog, you probably wouldn't mind a reprieve.

Since launching its Roadkill Survey for Road Bikers project, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), a citizen science organization that pairs adventurers with scientific projects in need of data, cyclists have made more than 800 roadkill observations, which are shared with the Road Ecology department at the University of California, Davis.

Gregg Treinish, ASC's founder and newly appointed National Geographic Emerging Explorer, says that while anyone can contribute to the survey—all they need is a smartphone and an app called iNaturalist—he likes to recruit expedition cyclists for the survey. Since they log such a large number of miles and, assuming they're spending at least part of the trip on highways, are exposed to a massive amount of roadkill.

"For people who go for more than 600 or 700 miles, we set them up as big transects," says Treinish.

Fraser Shilling, co-director of the Road Ecology Center at U.C. Davis, says the point of view of cyclists is much better for spotting small roadkill – birds, reptiles, and the like – compared to drivers (though California and Maine each have large citizen science programs which enlist drivers to document roadkill, as well).

He says long-distance cyclists are "going at the ideal speed and are covering enough ground to be an ideal alert system." For roadkill.

"We're going to collect data from a pair of cyclists who are about to circumnavigate South America," says Shilling. "So that should be interesting."

A couple from Fairbanks, Alaska, is currently cycling through Europe and documenting roadkill through Slovenia and Hungary.

Adam Bradley, a Reno, California-based expedition cyclist (and paddler and trekker) has also joined ASC's roadkill survey as he and a partner ride north to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

But Scott Loarie, who co-developed the iNaturalist app, says that it has many uses beyond logging roadkill. People can use the app to seek help identifying a flower, or to contribute the name of a particular flora or fauna that the poster can't ID.

"People are so disconnected from natural world, partially because of technology, so to use it to help people reconnect with the natural is a marvelous thing," he says. "I'm hoping we can give a little but of a renaissance to observing the natural world."

When it comes to roadkill, Shilling notes that sometimes a lack of evidence can be meaningful, as well. "In the Sierra Nevada range, Interstate 80 has surprisingly little roadkill. At first, you'd think maybe most animals are making it safely under the highway, but I've had camera installed [along likely passageways] for 2 years and we're seeing very low numbers of species. So maybe I-80 is actually a barrier across the mountain range. If we're eliminating the animal's ability to move, well then and you start to eliminate the animals themselves."

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Chief among these is the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a lesser-known park nestled in the badlands of North Dakota. It has traditionally been known for its dark skies that attract stargazers. But now, thanks to fracking activity right outside the park, "It looks like Blade Runner out there, with gas flares going off and trucks rolling by," says James Nations, who leads the NPCA's Center for Park Research and edited the report.

The gas flares and lights around drilling rigs have polluted the night sky across the 70,000-acre park, which is comprised of three parcels spread around the massive, 128 million-acre Bakken formation. That says nothing about concerns over what the chemical-heavy fracking fluid might be doing to water sources and what the noise and road-building from drilling operations around the park is doing to resident wildlife.

In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey said the Bakken held between 3 to 4 billion barrels of oil, recoverable using modern extraction technology. Since then, energy companies have been furiously buying up energy leases and tapping the ground. North Dakota is sitting on a $1.6 billion budget surplus, and job-seekers have flocked to the state, hoping to pick up a six-figury salary working on a rig.

Visits to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park have also increased—but many of the RVs and some of the tents jamming the campgrounds are oil company employees who can't find permanent housing. And it's only getting busier.

"Even the moderate industrialists predict that there will be between 40,000 to 60,000 fracturing wells in the west river country of North Dakota in the next 20 to 30 years," says Clay Jenkinson, a Theodore Roosevelt scholar who appears in a short film that accompanies the report. But oilrigs, trucks, noise, and light pollution are already causing "peripheral damage to one's experience in the park," says Jenkinson.

Add to that this bombshell: The USGS just released new oil and gas estimates that actually double the volume of technically retrievable hydrocarbons buried in and around the Bakken formation.

"This is the place where Theodore Roosevelt developed his conservation ethic, which went on to influence the history of the United States and certainly the National Park System," says James Nations, who leads the NPCA's Center for Park Research and edited the report on fracking. "The potential for fracking to symbolically roll over and surround the park … is both ominous and disappointing."

The report is focused not only on the inconveniences to park visitors, but also on its proven impacts on the landscape. It highlights the risks of fracking fluids contaminating ground and surface water flowing through the parks, as well as reduced water supply for the parks due to high demand in the extraction process. Road-building needed to support the movement of equipment and oil is fragmenting habitat corridors and can cause increased roadkill. Equipment and trucks might also carry invasive plant species that can take root along park boundaries.

Aside from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the report includes case studies of the following parks and recreation areas:

The report urges the National Park System to vet any oil and gas development project proposed within the "connected landscapes that surround a national park." States have enacted various levels of regulations around fracking—California is currently considering a trio of bills that would halt fracking entirely—but much is still unknown about its long-term environmental impacts.

"We're all, in a sense, benefitting from this new energy boom," says Nations. "But how do you put a price on conserving the most important natural areas and the most important cultural landscapes in our nation?"

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