[dropcap letter=”O”]ne of the first roadside landmarks after crossing into Maine on I-95 is a big, yellow moose-crossing sign — though the location suggests that it’s there more to delight tourists than to warn everyday motorists. Still, mix speeding tons of steel on wheels with hundreds of thousands of acres of surrounding forest and you get a lot of splatted critters around the state.
For Barbara Charry, a conservation biologist with Maine Audubon, that presents an opportunity for study. With the help of some 460 volunteers — morning commuters, retirees, and entire families who walk, bike, and drive Maine roads while pinning incidences of wildlife sightings and roadkill on a Google map — Charry has been able to identify hotspots where animals and humans seem most likely to meet on the road.
Her volunteers record their finds as meticulously as they can, but that sometimes proves difficult: “Is it a frog or is it a turtle? Sometimes you can’t tell,” veteran volunteer Brian Kaye says. “Pull out the tape measure and start making notes.”
Kaye, from York, doesn’t only record dead things. Live sightings are less common but equally valuable (he was especially impressed to once see three snakes crossing together in single file, though turkey, squirrels, and porcupines are most common). The idea is to find out where animals often cross the road, whether successfully or not. “You drive by roadkill all the time,” Kaye says. “You drive around roadkill, over roadkill. Whether it’s big or it’s cute, it’s disappointing.”
“It’s so important that wildlife be able to move on a landscape,” Charry says. Human-animal run-ins on the highway are bad for both parties. Her research shows that enounters tend to cluster in certain areas. Of course, more drivers means more collisions with wildlife, so stretches like I-295 between Portland and Brunswick see lots of incidents. But why, even within that stretch of highway, are certain spots worse than others? That’s where animal behavior comes into play. Roads that intersect streams and rivers or cut through wetlands are especially bad because animals flock to water. Areas with wide, wooded medians, are also dangerous, because, Charry hypothesizes, animals begin to see those spaces as part of their habitat.
The immediate question is how to turn these findings into practical solutions. And for that, adaptations like culverts and fencing can go a long way toward letting animals move through high-density areas. Even signage — useful in ways other than just as moose-crossing kitsch — can keep drivers on their toes. For Charry, though, the underlying motivation for the research is broader than hotspots on a map. The question she asks herself is: “How do we coexist?” — Joel Crabtree