Climate change and the extreme weather and floods it brings, mean a significant number of Canada’s roads and bridges will soon need to be replaced. It will be a hugely expensive undertaking; the cost of rebuilding the 40 per cent of substandard bridges and tunnels is expected to be $21 billion.

However, there is an upside. If done correctly, the repairs present a great chance to safeguard wildlife from road collisions, environmental experts say.

“There is a huge opportunity when we renovate this infrastructure to include road ecology measures. This would allow animals to pass even through a culvert under a road without being run over,” said Dave Pearce, Wildlands League’s senior forest conservation manager.

Based on research from the Ontario Road Ecology Group, road ecology involves the analysis of the interplay between road networks and the surrounding natural environment. This discipline delves into the impacts of roads on wildlife populations and explores the ways in which roads shape ecological processes. As a burgeoning field of study, road ecology is progressively gaining traction as both individuals and transportation planners aim to establish road networks that operate efficiently while co-existing with and safeguarding the natural world.

Pearce said at the federal level, Canada should follow the example of the United States where road ecology measures are legally required.

Canada's current lack of a national mandatory road ecology strategy takes a distressing toll on the wildlife population. Thousands of animals and millions of birds die each year from road collisions. In the province of Ontario alone, approximately 12,000 deer and other wildlife are killed in crashes annually, with 400 people injured.

A study of human-related avian mortality in Canada found approximately 14 million birds are killed each year by vehicles on one- and two-lane paved roads outside major urban centres in Canada during the breeding season.

Canadian roads and highways, including the Trans-Canada Highway and the National Highway System, fall within provincial jurisdiction, according to Transport Canada. The only exceptions are highways through national parks.

Although every province has some road ecology measures, they are not mandatory and are only put in place for specific projects to protect species at risk. “It should be a national road ecology initiative that would require every province to participate in all road projects,” Pearce said. “Considerations for both water flow and wildlife passage need to be assessed when designing each structure,” he added.

Thousands of animals and millions of birds die each year from road collisions. In the province of Ontario alone, approximately 12,000 deer and other wildlife are killed in crashes annually, with 400 people injured. #RoadEcology

“Road ecology protects biodiversity and people,” said Mandy Karch, executive director of Ontario Road Ecology Group. Collisions between vehicles and wildlife cost time and money and contribute to biodiversity loss, she noted. “There are human injuries and loss of life.”

Karch said road ecology mitigation measures are integral to transportation networks. “As we tackle the climate change and biodiversity crises, road ecology offers practical solutions that promote healthy, resilient communities,” she said.

Road ecology mitigation measures enable wildlife to move safely through the landscape, saving individual animals and ultimately species by preserving genetic diversity and allowing wildlife to follow critical resources in a landscape changing rapidly due to development and climate change.

“We don’t know the true number of animals killed on the road because people don’t notice or report collisions with frogs, salamanders, snakes, turtles and small mammals, birds and insects,” Karch said. For example, mass amphibian migrations can result in mass mortality on a road. Furthermore, “we don’t know what animals perish because they don’t even attempt to cross a road to reach safe habitat to overwinter, feed or mate,” she added.

In B.C., approximately 5,700 vehicle collisions with wild animals occur on provincial highways each year. Approximately 75 per cent of these crashes are with deer; 15 per cent are with bear, elk, and moose; and the remaining 10 per cent are with a variety of other wildlife species.

B.C.’s government uses exclusion fencing, overpasses, underpasses and warning signs on rural highways to help protect wildlife. In total, the province has installed 500 kilometres of fencing, four animal overpasses, 29 large underpasses, more than 70 small underpasses, and erected about 1,200 species-specific warning signs for drivers. The province also has some advanced wildlife detection systems using radar and thermal imaging to trigger LED signs to warn motorists that animals are nearby.

Ontario road ecology

According to Ontario’s transportation ministry, transportation infrastructure improvements, including roads and bridges, are generally subject to an environmental assessment under the Environmental Assessment Act. This process ensures potential environmental effects are taken into account before a project begins.

The EA process assesses the impact of infrastructure projects on nature, including vegetation, wildlife, wildlife habitat, and particularly species at risk.

Karch said that Ontario has excellent resources available to help guide road ecology mitigation at the municipal, provincial and federal scale, but mitigating the threats of roads is paramount to reverse the decline of reptiles and amphibians in Canada. There are still too many loopholes and exemptions that undermine existing legislation and policies designed to protect the environment, she added.

Alberta road ecology

In Alberta, the province’s code of practice for watercourse crossings (Alberta Water Act) sets standards and conditions that must be followed when watercourse crossings, such as culverts and bridges, are constructed. According to Alberta’s transportation ministry, the code helps ensure water and fish passage is maintained and prevents erosion and sedimentation during construction and throughout the operational life of the crossing.

All transportation projects adhere to provincial and federal legislation, including Canada’s Environmental Protection Act, Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and the Alberta Wildlife Act, the ministry said.

The ministry added bridge and culvert projects incorporate environmental considerations, such as ecology and climate change, during the design process.

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.

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First read about road "ecology" at least a decade ago when New Brunswick (I think) finally finished its four lane expansion of the Trans Canada highway. Apparently during that construction work it included some rudimentary culvert wildlife crossings. -- I suppose in an attempt to lessen the slaughter of Moose (and humans) from the regular collisions between animals and cars/trucks. One supposes the powers that be expected it only to get worse with the completion of the 4 lane construction. In my later travels through NB I was gratified to see the miles of roadside fencing installed that were designed to funnel migrating animals to the culverts. Have not heard about the success or failure of this project but am hoping other provinces with roads running through animal habitat will adopt his solution to safeguard our plummeting wildlife population.