The brown paper bag I carried out of the bookstore wasn’t there for the sake of discretion. Truth be told, the bookstore refuses to handle plastic anymore.
Ideally, the clerk told me, the store was on the verge of going entirely bagless, so I was lucky to be handed a brown paper sack. But it was raining, fortunately, and as I walked down the sidewalk trying to shield my new purchase, I secretly imagined a few genuine watermarks marring the surface of a page or two—indelible reminders that the spine of the West’s summer drought had finally been broken.
When (and if) the electronic book revolution gets more flexible and affordable, this bookstore might also be going bookless. Despite our latest national fixation with banning disposable plastic bags, nobody knows exactly how the future will be packaged. From an eBook merchandiser’s point of view, the traditional book is the archetype of excess packaging, and the ideas on the page are the only product an ecologically minded consumer should have to purchase. As a wordmonger, I tend to agree, but not entirely.
Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking that the Earth would be a lot better off without plastic bags. At the time of their appearance in the consumer world, they were touted as cheaper, lighter, more durable and a blessing when it came to saving trees. Now, as is the case with many innovations, the blessing has been transformed into a curse: No matter where you live, plastic bags billow and blow like dried leaves across the landscape or clog up the rivers. Allegedly, 100 billion of them get tossed out annually, a one-use trip from the checkout line to the landfill.
Major cities in the West have taken action to ban the plastic bag, some going so far as to charge shoppers 10 cents and a nasty look if they must beg for paper. Last month, California became the first state to enact a ban.
During disposable-bag debates, I wonder if anyone is talking about the sheer volume of packaging being hauled away inside those plastic and paper hammocks that cradle the products we buy, not to mention the shipping cartons and reams of plastic wrap that arrive by the semi-load at every shopping outlet before the merchandise gets arranged as stock on every American retail shelf.
Yes, there’s plenty of waste to go around, but the burden of it manages to fall, once again, squarely in the shopper’s cart.
I try to remember my reusable bags when I go out. Just like the 15 pairs of reading glasses I tuck into every corner of my house, bags are stuffed all over my vehicle, into the trunk, under the seats and in the glove compartment. I compress them into the tiny pockets of my backpack, bicycle and scooter saddlebags. Yet somehow, inevitably, I sometimes end up standing bagless in the checkout line, forced to accept plastic bags, or if I’m really lucky, increasingly rare paper bags, which come in handy as garbage-can liners.
I’m guessing that this new set of regulations will only prompt human beings to find sneakier ways around them. Some cities that have banned the bag have already reported increases in shoplifting, thanks to the influx of personal reusable sacks in their stores. Sadly, as long as saving money is the bottom line, the planet will never be our No. 1 concern.
As a community, I know we should be more than semi-conscious about the problem, but then again, is anyone keeping track of how many customers reuse or recycle the plastic bags they collect in some form or another? I know we’re offered secondhand bags with every secondhand purchase we make at garage sales and thrift stores. Surely, education and not just banning plastic bags, is key to solving the problem. Or am I a Pollyanna?
Though I may be compost before the average plastic bag breaks down, I can’t help foreseeing a future city or coastline where mounds of tote bags—all discarded—have come to rest. Ah, someone tells me, this is our newest unnatural wonder, the great dunes of our good intentions.
David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News.
Insurance Available? For Many People, Covered California Is Still Open for Health-Insurance EnrollmentWritten by Larry Hicks
Editor's Note: While the Independent has a policy against running press releases, we've agreed to run this piece from Covered California, as it contains important information about the availability of health insurance—which can be a life-changing situation.
Despite the best-laid plans, life can sometimes throw you a curveball.
So it is with health care.
After months of planning, promotion and outreach, Covered California successfully completed its first open enrollment period of the historic Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—helping more than a million consumers gain health insurance coverage.
Some people, however, may have had a change in life circumstances since open enrollment ended on March 31, and suddenly, they have a new need for coverage. If so, the door is not closed. They can still gain coverage through Covered California’s special-enrollment option.
“We continue to remind people that we still are open for business,” said Covered California executive director Peter V. Lee.
Through Nov. 15, 2014, consumers can sign up for health insurance as long as they do so within 60 days of a qualifying life event. The following circumstances are among the more common reasons that make someone eligible:
• They lose their health care coverage because they’ve lost or changed jobs.
• They lose their Medi-Cal coverage.
• They get married or enter a domestic partnership.
• They have a baby, adopt a child, or place a child in adoption or in a foster home.
• They move and gain access to new Covered California health insurance plans that were not available where they previously lived.
• They become a citizen, national or lawfully present individual.
For other examples that may qualify you for coverage through special enrollment, visit www.CoveredCA.com/coverage-basics/special-enrollment.
You must report changes and select a plan within 60 days of the qualifying life event to purchase a Covered California health insurance plan outside of open enrollment. Medi-Cal is available all year, however, and no qualifying life event is required to enroll in Medi-Cal.
If you have additional questions about whether you qualify for a special-enrollment period, you can call the Covered California Service Center at (800) 300-1506.
How do I avoid gaps in coverage?
You will need to plan ahead to avoid gaps in health coverage. It helps to know that in general, the start date for coverage depends on the date you enroll. If you enroll by the 15th day of the month, your coverage will start on the first day of the next month. If you enroll after the 15th day of the month, your coverage will start on the first day of the second month. For example, if you enroll on Aug. 13, your coverage will start Sept. 1. If you enroll on Aug. 16, your coverage will start Oct. 1. You can use this rule as a guideline to help plan your new coverage and avoid gaps.
(Note: If you go without coverage for three consecutive months during the year, and you don’t fall under an exemption permitting you to do so, you will be subject to a tax penalty.)
For most qualifying life events, the start date for coverage depends on the date you enroll, as described above, but there are a few exceptions:
• If you lose your Medi-Cal coverage, job-based coverage or other coverage, and you use a special-enrollment period, your coverage would start on the first day of the next month following your plan selection, regardless of when during the month you make your plan selection.
• If you get married and use a special-enrollment period, your coverage will start on the first day of the next month following your plan selection, regardless of when during the month you make your plan selection.
• If you have a child, adopt a child or place a child in adoption or foster care, and you use a special-enrollment period, your coverage starts on the date of the birth, the adoption or the placement for adoption or foster care.
• On a case-by-case basis, Covered California may start your coverage earlier.
Larry Hicks is the public information officer for Covered California.
Ahhh—another fifth week!
Typically, there are no meetings and few events in the fifth week. If we organize our recurring to-do lists by the first and third week, or by the second and fourth (which I highly recommend), we should not have much on our lists this week, either!
So, what do we do with this week of freedom? I highly recommend giving yourself permission to get out and enjoy your garden!
That’s it! STOP reading this and GO OUTSIDE, before it gets too hot! Get!
It’s not only about the plants: Your pots can add a lot of interest and color to your surroundings—with or without plants!
We talked earlier this month about using succulents for your front gate pots. However, let’s face it: Succulents can sometimes be a little boring in color, as greens and grays echo the desert landscape.
However, you can plant them in pots that have colors that complement your home’s décor. For example, going back to the front gate, you can always make a first-time visitor feel welcome with turquoise pots.
When you combine colors, keep in mind the style you use inside your home. Keep color families together, and make sure the collection complements each other. When appropriate, relate the outside colors to the first colors people see when they enter your home.
On this week's invasive Independent comics page: The K Chronicles enjoys an episode of "Black Eye for the White Guy"; Jen Sorenson looks at the Paycheck Fairness Act; Red Meat examines the human body; and The City wonders how and why the NSA dropped the ball.
SAGEWorks has begun!
The LGBT Community Center of the Desert, aka The Center, is currently serving unemployed and underemployed LGBT adults 40 years old and up with computer training and job-skills classes. The course helps participants build the requisite skills to perform the basic tasks of a job search, and to expand computer knowledge and job skills.
SAGEWorks is being led by Bobbie McClain, a graduate of the first SAGEWorks, Palm Springs program in 2012. She credits the connections she made and the support she received at SAGEWorks with helping her find teaching positions both in the Coachella Valley and in Berkeley, Calif. She is particularly grateful for the opportunity to coordinate SAGEWorks, Palm Springs, in her new position at The Center.
"Losing a job, or being unemployed for a year or more, can be quite devastating, emotionally and financially," says McClain. "It was a lifesaver for me to find the SAGEWorks program and to meet others like me who needed to find work. Receiving updated training to expand on what we already know as older, experienced workers and having knowledgeable speakers who unselfishly donate time to train SAGEWorks students on how to interview, how to look for jobs in the new world of job searches, and how to locate needed resources to find employers who recognize the value of older workers was invaluable. I am grateful to my teachers and fellow students who supported me and gave me courage through a tough time."
SAGEWorks is offered at The Center three times each year: in the fall, winter and spring. Each session meets for eight weeks, with many guest lecturers from local agencies and businesses, offering students opportunities to meet with local employers.
SAGEWorks students will be offering two special presentations to the public, on Wednesday, April 30 and May 7. Lisa Middleton, the interim director of The Center will be speaking on "Transgender in the Workplace," and Lorraine D'Alessio and Thomas Joy of the D'Alessio Law Group will be speaking on "Working Legally in the United States." These lectures will be held from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. with a suggested donation of $10. Participants must register through SAGEWorks to attend either of these events.
The rains had been heavy on and off for weeks, soaking the ground, washing away the soil and undercutting our yard and those of our neighbors. This happened 45 years ago, when we lived on a steep mountain ridge in the Santa Ynez Mountains of Santa Barbara, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Where once we had an ample yard, 15 feet of grass now separated our house from the precipitous edge of the slope. That led to anxious nights with images in my mind of our house sliding down the slope while I slept. Although our house never went over the edge, those feelings of anxiety sometimes recur during big storms.
A little research reveals that the worst storm ever recorded in California struck on Christmas Eve of 1861. The rains continued almost nonstop until February 1862, soaking California with almost four times its normal rainfall, and creating enormous brown lakes on the normally dry plains of Southern California. In the Sierra Nevada, the deluges filled rivers, transforming them into raging torrents that swept away entire communities and gold-mining settlements in the foothills.
In California’s enormous Central Valley—a region well more than 300 miles long and 20 miles wide—the floodwaters streaming from the Sierra produced an inland sea, covering farmlands and towns. Sacramento was submerged under 10 feet of brown, debris-laden water, forcing residents to move about the city by boat.
California wasn’t alone in its misery: Diary and newspaper accounts suggest that most of the West Coast, as well as inland areas in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, suffered their worst floods in history.
Then there’s drought. I recall living through the severest drought on record for many Western states, which happened during the winter of 1976-1977. In California, this period is known as “the year with no rain.”
I was a teenager, and for the first time, I had to confront the realization that water was a finite resource. My family had always used water liberally, with little thought about supply, but that year, every drop counted. Washing cars, watering lawns and taking baths or long showers were banned. These “sacrifices” paled in comparison to the far harsher impacts we heard about on the news, faced by farmers with little water, ski areas with no snow, and forests drying and burning.
This bipolar behavior of our Western climate left me wondering what a “normal” climate really was.
Today, I am one of a small cohort of scientists trying to answer that question, by searching for evidence of past droughts and floods, wildfires, periods of warmth and cold and so on, over the geologic past—the period before humans kept records in the West.
If we step back and view our climate history over a very long time period—say, hundreds to thousands of years—we begin to see the forest for the trees. We can pick out extreme events and how often they occur. This natural history is written not in paper and ink, but in the earth itself, in sediment, stone, trees and ice. Like investigators at a crime scene, we try to piece together seemingly random and unrelated clues about our past climate, and eventually, we begin to see patterns.
Our discoveries are occasionally surprising, sometimes unsettling, even anxiety-provoking. Evidence is mounting, for example, that two prolonged droughts, each lasting more than a century, gripped the Southwest during medieval times, about 650 to 1,100 years ago.
Decades-long droughts have also occurred more frequently and fairly regularly, telling us that these dry periods are a normal feature of our climate.
We have also found evidence of previous catastrophic floods in the region, suggesting that the “megaflood” in 1861-1862 was not a freak event. Our studies indicate that huge floods—much larger than we have experienced in the past century—occurred every 100 to 200 years over the past few thousand years.
It’s unsettling to think about the implications of extreme climate events—and the reality that global warming may make severe weather much more frequent and even more extreme. These days, of course, my adult mind can provide diversions, and some people are getting quite skillful at outright denial. This might alleviate unease in the short run, but I know that the best long-term solution is for scientists to prepare everyone living in our Western states for a future of unpredictable and extreme climate change.
B. Lynn Ingram is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a professor of earth science at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow.
Dear Mexican: My father and mother were able to come to the United States because after the “yellow scare” was over, the U.S. didn’t seem to mind that Chinese were coming over here by the boatloads. Since my parents were given visas and green cards, my father was able to get into school pretty easily. This seems to be prevalent among most of the Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean and Indian populace (aka the model minority groups). As a result, immigrants from China, Taiwan, Korea and India have been able to get an education here—and prosper.
Additionally, many of these immigrants have pride for their home country (as do Mexicans; unlike what many people in the anti-immigration crowd think, you’re not the only ones who wave your home country’s flag around). This resulted in a lot of newly educated Chinese, Taiwanese, South Koreans and Indians bringing skills and expertise back to their home country. This allowed the aforementioned countries to build up—and these countries have begun to pump out fewer immigrants, since there are more job opportunities, better education systems and better living conditions overall. (There is still a way to go in China and India, but they’ll get there.)
My point: Why doesn’t the U.S. grant a greater number of Mexicans green cards and visas? It would stop all the whiners from saying, “We’ll all be speaking Spanish soon.” I mean, seriously: If the U.S. would allow more Mexicans in legally, then we’d have more Mexicans with actual opportunities in the U.S., which would mean Mexico would eventually benefit, and in turn, it would eventually reduce the number of illegal immigrants coming in from Mexico.
You’re a much better fact- and statistics-finder than I am (and you reach a lot more people than I do), so I was wondering if there is anyway you could let some of those wall-building whiners know that billions spent on letting Mexicans in and helping them succeed now (the illegals are a necessity anyway—New York would grind to a halt if the immigrants left) is a whole lot better in the long run than billions spent building a wall that doesn’t work (and then billions more spent later to tear it down when we realize the damn wall separates us from our neighbors and destroys ecosystems that keep America from turning into the Sahara).
Baby of Immigrants (Doesn’t Really Matter If They Are Legal Or Illegal)
Dear Chinita: Hear, hear all around. I’ll just note that many on the right want to keep Mexicans pendejos, poor and illegal, because it makes it that much easier to scapegoat and exploit them. You rarely hear Know Nothings go after Indians, for instance (who by far get the largest share of high-tech visas: 64 percent compared to Mexico’s puny 1.2 percent), because they’d go all Shiva on them with their money, education and ghost peppers.
The young student at Claremont McKenna College who approached me after my recent speech there to fret about the fact that family members don’t like her, because she’s not 100 percent Mexican: Don’t pay attention to the haters. I know that the Mexican part of you feels you’re obliged to hang out and respect family members, because they’re familia. Screw that. NEVER surround yourself with people who obsess about racial or cultural purity, because they’re the ones whose futures are doomed in this multicultural reality of ours—they’re going to end up whining as much as neo-Nazis.
ALWAYS surround yourself with people who’ll celebrate your diverse background. Stand strong; breath deep; and repeat after me: ¡A LA CHINGADA CON HATERS!
A Los Angeles Times headline from August sums it up: “Killer bee season underway with a vengeance.”
Whoa, and not just because of the cliché. So far this year, the list of killer-bee victims in the U.S. begins with a confirmed fatality, 62-year-old Larry Goodwin, who got stung more than 1,000 times by a Texas swarm that was estimated to total more than 40,000 bees.
In Arizona, “a massive black mass of bees”—whoa, and not just because of the massive repetition—attacked several people and horses in a Phoenix suburb. Other Arizona swarms killed four dogs in Tucson, and maybe (not confirmed) killed a mountain climber and his dog in the Santa Rita range. A woman who witnessed an attack on an Arizona landscaper who was using a Weedeater in her yard reported: “I saw (him) throw his equipment into the air; his sunglasses fell off; and all I saw was black. He was screaming and there were just tons of bees attacking him … I felt so helpless.”
Also this year, another Texas swarm killed two miniature horses and five hens, and stung a woman “about 200 times, her boyfriend about 50 times. ... The pain from the stings was like being stabbed with hundreds of knives and torched with a flamethrower at the same time, (the woman) said.” The headline about that attack warned: “Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.”
On the other hand, more than 60 million people in the U.S. territory invaded by killer bees—largely the Southwestern states, including the Coachella Valley—did not get stung this year. Or they didn’t get a newsworthy sting.
The background, as I reported in a 2002 High Country News story: “It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. … When 26 bee colonies from Africa were brought to Brazil by a scientist in 1956, it was an attempt to boost that country’s honey production. … But a year later, African queens escaped captivity and began spreading like crazy on their own, taking over regular honeybee colonies either by force or interbreeding and asserting dominant genes, and occupying many niches held by native bees. Soon, Hollywood was churning out cheap horror movies like The Swarm and Deadly Invasion: The Killer Bee Nightmare. ... The front shifted from country to country as the Africanized bees picked up speed and killed an estimated 1,000 people in Latin America. They invaded Texas in 1990, Arizona and New Mexico in 1993, California in 1994, Nevada in 1998.”
Despite the hysteria, killer bees have only killed somewhere between a dozen and two dozen people in the U.S. (Also from my previous story: “There is disagreement about how many deaths the killer bees can be blamed for: Do we count the bulldozer driver in Texas who jumped off to run from bees and got run over by his own machine?”) Each death is a terrible tragedy for the victims, their families and friends. Meanwhile, the bees continue to spread, taking over southern Utah and southern Florida, creeping northward in California, and showing up in pockets of Georgia and Tennessee. Cold weather is thought to be a limiting factor, but states close to the front lines, like Oregon, are wondering if/when the invasion will cross their borders.
Like I’ve said for years: Let’s honor the victims, but tone down the hysteria, recognizing that these invading wild bees have become part of our ecosystem, like tiny wolves. Yes, compared to other kinds of bees, they’re more likely to damage you, but their “attacks” are really self-defense actions. They evolved in Africa, where lots of predators destroy bee colonies to gobble the honey, so they’re high-strung and super-defensive. If you’re extra-careful when you’re near a swarm of them, you should be OK, though there’s always the risk that you won’t KNOW you’re near them, so you might do something to trigger a defensive attack on you. (That’s one more reason to never pick up a Weedeater—a machine they often perceive as a threat.)
The main reason I’m writing about killer bees now is because they might help solve the so-called “colony collapse disorder” in our commercial honeybees, which are descended from European bees. The most recent round of colony collapse—mysterious die-offs of honeybees and vacated hives—began in 2006, according to the federal Agricultural Research Service. Commercial beekeepers have reported losing an average of 30 percent of their hives each year since then, due to colony collapse, which is worrisome, because losses above 14 percent a year mean their businesses are not economically viable. Researchers haven’t nailed down the exact cause of collapse, but the general thinking is it’s a combination of factors, including Varroa mites that weaken the bees, various pesticides applied to crops they pollinate, and other parasites and diseases, along with the stress of being hauled across the country to pollinate California’s almond trees, a crop that’s grown so huge that it requires more than a million colonies, in a bad time of year for bees (February).
However, killer bees are not so prone to suffer colony collapse, but that fact is not being widely circulated. Kirk Visscher, an associate professor of entomology just up the road at the University of California at Riverside, tells me that he used to have 60 hives in the university’s orange groves, but colony collapse took out about 40 hives, “and the ones that are still standing are Africanized (killer bees rather than European-strain commercial honeybees). I hear that from other beekeepers, too.”
Justin Schmidt, a 25-year veteran of the federal Carl Hayden Bee Research Lab in Tucson, now a lecturer in the University of Arizona Department of Entomology, sees the same survival ability in killer bees. “They can be useful. We can learn from them, and we should emphasize them more” in the efforts to solve colony collapse, Schmidt says. “But the media, economists and most scientists are ignoring it. At conferences on colony collapse, I don’t see anything about Africanized bees. No one is asking, ‘How come they don’t have it (colony collapse), and domestic bees do?’”
Googling around, I found a few mentions of killer-bee resistance to colony collapse, but not many, and I found no strong arguments for using them in the research of the crisis. Most of the mentions had to do with the killer bees’ resistance to Varroa mites, but Schmidt says they’re also relatively resistant to other things that prey on commercial honeybees, including “foulbrood” bacteria, the “chalkbrood” fungal disease, a parasite called Nosema, and the Israeli acute paralysis virus. “Mites do kill (killer bee colonies), but it takes two to three years, and by then, they’ve put off 15 to 20 new swarms. (High reproduction rates is another trait they developed to withstand African predators.) So mites don’t really affect the population dynamics of killer bees.”
Both Schmidt and Visscher think that the colony-collapse research should concentrate on selective breeding and other genetic engineering to develop killer bees that are somewhat calmer and more suited for use as commercial honey producers and pollinators. “Whatever those bees are doing right (to resist colony collapse), it’s probably not linked to their defensive behavior, so (hypothetically), breeding could produce manageable bees that are resistant to collapse,” Visscher says.
Says Schmidt: “Brazilians have bred killer bees for honey production, and that’s a great success story. Brazil was No. 17 in the world for honey production when they brought in killer bees, and now Brazil is No. 4. (Hypothetically), killer bees could also be genetically engineered to do commercial pollination.”
Killer bees are already, through natural evolution, becoming more like commercial honeybees in the ability to withstand cold, Schmidt adds. He thinks the ultimate limiting factor on their territory is not cold weather, but the lack of their natural food (flowers generating pollen) in cold weather. They could be managed in cold seasons with the “artificial diet” that’s given to commercial honeybees, he says.
Any good idea faces obstacles, of course. The hysteria around killer bees; the fact that they are more difficult to manage in colonies; and the liability risk if they harm someone have discouraged this potential line of research.
“Most beekeepers (in the U.S.) don’t like dealing with them,” Visscher says. When honeybee hives are taken over by African queens, for instance, the beekeepers usually remove those queens and add a new queen descended from European bees.
“There are all kinds of roadblocks,” Schmidt says, including “politics, funding and inertia” that support the European-strain honeybee industry. “But it needs to be done.”
Ray Ring is a senior editor at High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.
One official calls Interstate 70 through Colorado’s Rockies “the Berlin Wall for wildlife.” Animals killed there include cougars, bears, moose, elk, two of the state’s reintroduced Canada lynx, and Colorado’s first recorded wolf in more than 70 years, who had wandered all the way from Yellowstone—only to be struck by a car.
The amount and diversity of roadkill reflects the area’s value to wildlife and helped inspire a recent international competition to design a wildlife highway crossing over I-70 at Vail Pass.
Now, a newly formed coalition of engineers and conservationists, calling itself the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Bridge Company, wants to build the crossing. It envisions a revolutionary design to add to a growing number of highway wildlife crossings across the country—including some right here in California. Each is changing the way we think about roads and promising big benefits for both motorists and wildlife.
The crossings reflect a national problem. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that wildlife-vehicle collisions cause $8 billion in damages annually, while the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that roughly 200 people are killed each year. The Humane Society of America estimates that more than 1 million animals die on U.S. roads daily, including panthers, pelicans, grizzlies, elk and many others.
Fortunately, in a decades-long movement now gaining momentum, biologists, conservationists and engineers are collaborating to build safer roads. A successful example is U.S. 93 between Missoula and Flathead Lake in northwest Montana. Before a planned highway expansion, tribes, conservationists and state agencies partnered to include dozens of wildlife crossings along the 60-mile stretch. Most are oversized culverts with “wing fences” that guide wildlife toward them. Remote cameras have recorded thousands of animals using the crossings, including deer, bears, otters, owls, turkeys and more. Footage seems to show mother deer and bears training their young to use the crossings, and preliminary evidence suggests considerable declines in collisions.
In Idaho, where 5,000 animal-vehicle collisions were reported in 2012, and damages cost an estimated half-million dollars annually, transportation and wildlife agencies teamed up on several wildlife underpasses. Cameras show animals using one near Boise, and officials estimate 80 percent of deer and elk bound for the highway will ultimately detour into the underpass.
Here in California, fences guide endangered desert tortoises toward culverts beneath Route 58, which slices across the Mojave Desert. Researchers say it has decreased wildlife mortality more than 90 percent in just four years. Back in Colorado, many motorists winding through Glenwood Canyon on I-70 are unaware that the road’s redesign in the 1990s included features to protect bighorn sheep.
In the 1980s, Canada’s Banff National Park set the standard for North American wildlife crossings, constructing 22 underpasses and two overpasses where a highway bisects the park. Research indicates grizzlies, wolves, elk and other animals have used the corridors 240,000 times, resulting in an 80 percent decline in collisions. Researchers even documented mothers teaching their young how to negotiate the routes.
Increasingly, motorists aid the effort. In 2009, savvy researchers at the University of California at Davis realized that the millions of GPS-equipped phones and cars Americans now own could provide unprecedented data on collision patterns. They created the California Roadkill Observation System, the first statewide roadkill reporting website. Drivers have uploaded data on thousands of wildlife collisions, including GPS coordinates, date, time and species, and a recent app now invites bicyclists to participate. In 2012, Idaho created a similar system.
In Washington, state and federal agencies, conservationists and the University of Montana created the “I-90 Wildlife Watch” website. Drivers can use an interactive map to report both living and dead animals on a busy stretch near Snoqualmie Pass due for upgrades. Users report becoming hooked, and the data will help agencies design and place new wildlife crossings. In February, the agencies announced a scholarship for high school students to help with design.
All of this is important work. The wildlife killed on our roads includes males seeking mates, mothers of vulnerable young, and amphibians migrating to breeding grounds. Their deaths come at a time when extinctions are soaring. Meanwhile, climate change is causing animal migrations, not just north and south, but across valleys, up and down mountains, and to wherever else the good food and weather is shifting. As the migrations increase, safe wildlife crossings help prevent populations from becoming fragmented or isolated. They also preserve the integrity of our protected places.
Of course, the crossings also make roads safer for people, saving untold numbers of lives and collisions every year.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News.