The US Highway 93 North (US 93 North) reconstruction project on the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwest Montana represents one of the most extensive wildlife-sensitive highway design efforts in North America. The reconstruction of the 56-mile long road section includes the installation of 41 fish and wildlife crossing structures, 2 underpasses for live-stock, 1 bicycle/pedestrian underpass, and 8.3 miles of road with wildlife exclusion fencing on both sides totalling 16.6 miles of fencing.
Why Were These Structures Built?
These were built to improve safety for the traveling public by reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions and allow wildlife to continue to move across the landscape and the road.
Background of Why the Structures were Built
In the 1990s, Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) proposed widening U.S. Highway 93 through the Flathead Indian Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). Tribal members recognized the safety problem, but they insisted that wildlife be given consideration in the new design. "A lot of tribal members are active hunters and fishermen, and game is a treaty-protected resource," explained tribal biologist Dale Becker to Sierra Magazine. "Big-game species provide important subsistence for a lot of families. And the grizzly bear and gray wolf are revered as part of our culture." CSKT concerns regarding the widening included government-to-government relations, tribal sovereignty, cultural issues, increased population growth and land development, and impacts to the landscape and natural resources. CSKT and MDT could not reach an agreement, creating an impasse. From 1996 to 2000 sporadic discussions were held. While both MDT and CSKT agreed that safety issues needed to be addressed, the size and configuration of the proposal and the associated impacts continued to be sticking points.
In March 2000, the Federal Highways Administration (FHWA), MDT, and CSKT met and established a tri-governmental team to reach agreement. From that process, the need to take a "Spirit of Place" approach was identified. To the Tribes, Spirit of Place includes more than just the road and adjacent areas; it consists of the surrounding mountains, plains, hills, forests, valleys, and sky and includes the paths of waters, glaciers, winds, plants, animals, and native peoples - i.e., it is the whole continuum of what is seen, touched, felt and traveled through. Before any design concepts for the roadway could be conceived, it was essential to get a better understanding of the land, and how the CSKT people relate to that land. The design of the roadway would need to be premised on the idea that the road is a visitor and it should respond to and be respectful of the land and the Spirit of Place. Plans were put in place to address animal migration routes, which historically had crossed the areas now bisected by the roadway. Areas needing water channel restoration were identified. Signage was planned that recognized the unique and diverse nature of the surrounding communities and included place names in English and Salish.
In December 2000, the CSKT, MDT, and FHWA signed a memorandum of agreement for this project. It included wildlife mitigation measures to mitigate the impacts of the road and traffic to wildlife and natural processes, and to improve human safety through a reduction in wildlife-vehicle collisions. The Record of Decision PDF970 Kb was signed in 2001. Construction commenced in 2002.
Were the Structures Expensive to Construct?
Wildlife mitigation measures cost money. However, a goal of the mitigation is to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions; beyond the value of enhanced human safety, collisions can be very expensive. A mitigation measure is an investment that may pay for itself over time in reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions. Please see here for more information on the costs and benefits of wildlife mitigation measures.
Is Construction Completed?
There is a section still to be completed in the Ninepipes/Ronan section.The Ninepipe segment of US 93 North was excluded from the overall design process. CSKT, MDT, and FHWA determined the Ninepipe area to be an area with significant cultural, ecological, and environmental values that required additional environmental analysis to determine roadway improvement impacts. Construction on this section is likely to be started within 10 years, according to MDT. The final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the Ninepipe/Ronan segment of the US 93 project was circulated on March 28, 2008. It addresses comments on the draft SEIS published in August 2006, and identifies the preferred alternative. The Record of Decision PDF637 Kb was approved on May 21, 2008.
For more information on the US93 North construction and background, please see the Federal Highways website or the 93 construction website.