WELLS—If they build a bridge, the wildlife will come.
Two overpasses are under construction over Interstate 80 on the Pequop Summit between Wells and West Wendover to funnel wildlife over the highway and out of the way of traffic.
The roughly $14 million project that began in the spring of 2016 is expected to be completed by the end of the current construction season, according to Meg Ragonese, a public information officer for the Nevada Department of Transportation.
Ragonese said the project is “aimed at enhancing safety for drivers and wildlife by reducing vehicle-animal collisions.”
Nevada Department of Wildlife spokesman Joe Doucette, who works out of the Elko office, agreed safety is the main goal of the overpasses that are a joint project of NDOT and NDOW.
“It’s a win-win for everybody: wildlife, drivers, insurance companies and hunters,” he said.
Almost 50 percent of accidents involving wildlife along I-80 in Nevada happen at Pequop, said Nova Simpson, northern Nevada biological supervisor for NDOT. She said mule deer cross the freeway on their spring and fall migrations.
“Pequop is an area we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Doucette said.
He said the lower 70 mph speed limit on the summit is there because of the deer migration routes.
One motorist has been killed, 12 people injured and there have been more than 200 wildlife-vehicle collisions in the Pequop area in recent years, according to NDOT.
NDOT is the primary funding source for the Pequop safety crossings, while NDOW provided a $500,000 grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and works closely with NDOT on wildlife issues, Simpson said.
“Dealing with NDOT is a great example of interagency cooperation in the state. It’s been a very good partnership,” Doucette said.
NDOW used GPS signals from collars on mule deer to determine the best sites for the latest overpasses. Doucette said that “by collaring a couple hundred deer over a couple years we can have a very good idea” where the deer are traveling.
The collars fall off the deer after a year.
The overpasses are roughly 200 feet in length and width. They will be covered with native soil and vegetation to replicate the natural environment and attract the animals.
Wadsworth Brothers Construction Co. is doing the work on Pequop Summit. One wildlife bridge is at the west end of the summit, and the other is at the east end.
The two safety crossings at Pequop will join an earlier overpass for wildlife built at Silver Zone Pass on I-80 in Elko County. There also are three such bridges over U.S. 93 in the effort to reduce vehicle accidents and wildlife deaths.
“We started back in 2010, and the first crossings were completed on U.S. 93,” Simpson said. “We had 35,000 crossings during migrations within the first four years.”
The figures also show that from 3,500 to 5,000 deer use the overpasses for each migration period in the spring and fall.
Simpson said there were 80 percent fewer documented wildlife carcasses in the first two years of the bridges, and that was just during the migrations.
“Now we get zero to one hits per migration as far as the reports we are getting in,” she said.
The monitoring is done only during the mule deer migrations, but Simpson said there also was monitoring one summer that showed that elk, pronghorns, red foxes, badgers, cattle and horses used the U.S. 93 overpasses.
All the overpass projects over U.S. 93 and I-80 feature eight-foot fencing that funnels the wildlife to the safe crossing locations, Simpson said.
The first overpasses included two at HD Summit roughly 20 miles north of Wells and one at 10 Mile Summit, all on U.S. 93, and then the Silver Zone Pass overpass over I-80 between Oasis and West Wendover was done in 2013.
Simpson said there are no usage numbers for the Silver Zone Pass overpass yet, but a University of Nevada, Reno group is working on a report. Data has already been collected on deer deaths on Pequop to use for future comparisons of before and after the crossings, she said.
Along with the overpasses, there are four underpasses for wildlife along U.S. 93. The most recent one was completed last year, Ragonese said.
“The big ones are the overpasses. They are much more useable and easier for wildlife. Going underground is against their instincts,” Doucette said.
The deer do use the underground routes, however, when they follow a leader under the highway, he said.
During the construction on I-80 at Pequop travel speeds are reduced to 55 mph and travel lanes are down to one lane each way.