A cross-country trek to raise awareness of animal mortalities caused by vehicles
By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
GALLATIN GATEWAY – For those currently attempting to contact Scott Poindexter, he’s likely on the side of the freeway somewhere—anywhere, really—in the contiguous U.S. On Oct. 13, it was a public restroom, to muffle the sound of the howling wind outside, in Kansas as he completes a cross country trek to raise awareness of animal mortalities caused by vehicles along America’s roadways. He’s taking the day off after walking 31 miles the previous day. Poindexter’s considers it a “reasonable” goal to walk between 20-25 miles per day.
Not many people would consider walking across the country a “reasonable” endeavor, but Poindexter doesn’t mind stretching his legs for a good cause. He calls his project Walk4WildlifeCrossings, and the goal is to speak for the millions of animals that die annually on U.S. roadways, accompanied by hundreds of human deaths and about $8 billion in damages to people and their vehicles. Road kills are a common sight across the country, but its particularly troublesome in the Western U.S., where once rural populations are growing as people escape city life.
After Poindexter’s work guiding in Denver this past summer was put on hold, the Lafayette, Colorado native and chiropractor with a background in animal science, decided to take his passion for animal advocacy to the open road—literally. It wasn’t his first time—in 2010, he rode his bike across the country to raise awareness for the child obesity epidemic.
“When my tour guiding gig out of Denver wasn’t going to happen this season, [a] little light bulb went off,” Poindexter said. “I don’t know what your dreams are, but most people when they get to the end of their life, haven’t done them because there’s always an excuse. There wasn’t an excuse. I had a backpack, and I had shoes.”
Poindexter’s direct approach to following his dreams is a way for him to spread awareness on very complex problems. Aware that he isn’t passing laws or moving mountains on his 3,000 mile journey, he is content with the idea that maybe someone he talks with—even if only one—will decide to change their life because of his efforts.
He began his walk on June 23 in Neah Bay, Washington, before continuing toward Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In Rawlins, Wyoming he was stopped from entering Colorado due to road closures from the Mullen Fire and was forced to restart out of Pueblo, Colorado.
Without fancy gadgets, he uses MapQuest and Google Maps, as well as talking to locals to patch together a viable route. Between Missoula and Rawlins he was able to use the Adventure Cycling Association maps. With him, he carries basic camping supplies, food and water, and a recently acquired stroller, on which he transports his supplies in front of him, which makes the long-distance travel easier on his body.
“I so appreciate what Scott is trying to do because it is easy to overlook roadkill and it’s become so normalized, especially in a place like Montana,” said Jennifer Sherry, wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I was exited to see his effort, which is shining a light on it.”
The Montana Department of Transportation undertook a corridor planning study of U.S. Highway 191—between Four Corners and Beaver Creek Road south of Big Sky—with input from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Montanans for Safe Wildlife Passage Coalition. U.S. Highway 191 sees an average daily traffic volume of 6,000 to 17,000 and as Big Sky and Bozeman grow, MDT forecasts that by 2040, average daily traffic volumes could increase in range from 10,000 to 30,000.
“It’s an interesting section of road because it connects two of Montana’s fastest growing communities and these are communities where people are really engaged in the conservation efforts in their areas,” Sherry said. “For wildlife, this road will essentially become a giant undulating wall of metal.”
The corridor study, which began in August 2019, will gather information on traffic patterns and transportation issues and will not only impact residents and the millions of travelers who pass through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem each year, but also the wildlife who call it home. Yellowstone National Park, through which U.S. 191 bisects, saw record-breaking visitation this summer, all from domestic travelers. Sherry says that people from all over the country recognize the unique value of the local ecosystem, which is uplifting to their efforts.
When it comes to safe wildlife crossings, there are a few different solutions that other areas have implemented, such as animal-specific crossings constructed over or under busy roadways. The first step to reaching these solutions, Sherry says, lies in the data.
“The next step is not to jump to building solutions, but to gather the information needed to design those solutions, in order for it to be successful,” she said. “What analyses are showing are that a lot of these solutions require a lot of money upfront, but in the long run they really pay themselves off in terms of the prevention of collision. And when you factor in the value of the animals you’re saving from a pretty miserable death … there are value in theses solutions.”
According to a cost-benefit analysis conducted by the Western Transportation Institute in 2007, the estimated average costs for each deer, elk and moose collision per accident is between $8,015 and $28,600. This includes costs associated with vehicle repair, human injuries, human fatalities, towing, accident attendance and investigation, hunting and recreational value of the animal involved as well as carcass removal and disposal.
Of course, not all animals perish immediately—after collisions, many suffer with injuries in the very habitat they call home simply because they crossed a narrow strip of asphalt at the wrong moment. Poindexter has seen his share of dead and injured animals during his trek, the perfect fuel for a journey centered around speaking for those who do not have a voice of their own.
“Most time when someone asks me what I’m doing … they get it pretty quickly, that yeah, it’s a disaster with our roadways,” he said. Seeing roadkill is pretty commonplace, especially in the West, yet both he and Sherry agree that it shouldn’t be.
Poindexter said he’s also learned lessons along the way—from ranchers who’ve made their living off their land for generations, to housing developments where families have chosen to raise their children and find comfort in their own lives—the solution of “moving aside” for wildlife corridors becomes complicated.
“Crossings are just a Band-Aid for a mess that we’ve created by putting pavement all over, gravel roads and train tracks,” Poindexter said. “But it’s a Band-Aid we’ve got to try … I don’t know what else you can do.”
In the meantime, Poindexter will keep putting one foot in front of the other, encouraging conversation and action.
“I hope I’m inspiring people to know they can get involved and can make a difference by supporting these organizations,” he said. “The moment has never been better because the momentum is there.”