As Nikki Robinson took the stage at the final dress rehearsal for TEDx Asheville last month, and the spotlight from the Diana Wortham Theater twinkled in her eyes, she thought, “This is what it feels like to be a deer in the headlights. “
And then she smiled and relaxed a little, realizing the irony of that thought. After several months of preparation, Robinson was right at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts to talk about what it’s like to be an animal trying to cross a busy highway.
The theme of the TEDx Asheville 2022 event was Building Bridges; Opening Doors, a perfect topic for a presentation on how to stop traffic fatalities in North Carolina. One of the nine chosen speakers, Robinson is a native North Carolinian who was inspired by the rich flora and fauna of the southern Appalachian Mountains to the Coastal Plains. One of her personal values is to help others develop a deep connection with nature and become aware of its vulnerability.
Word from the Smokies: Keys to Wildlife Crossing Success on I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge
Robinson is also the North Carolina Project Manager for Wildlands Network, which strives to restore wildlife habitats to restore wildlife corridors throughout North America. In this role, she works with community partners, government agencies, and NGOs to promote wildlife habitat connectivity initiatives across the state.
“Wildlands Network identified key habitats of native animals and the corridors that connect them. We call them Wildways,” Robinson said. From the wilderness of Quebec, the Adirondacks and the Shenandoah Valley to the Everglades and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, protecting and expanding these and other key core areas is critical to ‘rewilding’ the East.”
“What do you think about road deaths?” was the opening line of Robinson’s speech. “Let’s start with the obvious: it’s disgusting. It is pathetic. It is expensive. But it is preventable. Before humans existed, wildlife moved where they pleased for basic necessities such as food, water, shelter, and mates. Now cut and shred roads and develop even our wildest places. Crossing a road is a relatively new survival skill and difficult to master.”
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The wildlife in North Carolina struggles with 80,000 miles of state-maintained highways that crisscross the landscape where many species still navigate using their own long-standing system of dirt trails. Over the three-year period from 2017-2019, there were 56,868 wildlife collisions, more than 2,800 human injuries, five human fatalities — all of which cost $156.9 million in property damage according to a June 2020 study by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
“Every day, more than 26,000 vehicles drive through the Pigeon River Gorge on Interstate 40 between Asheville, North Carolina and Knoxville, Tennessee.” Robinson continued. “This raging four-lane highway cuts through the mountains just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For those who’ve traveled that stretch of I-40, you know it’s not a Sunday cruise. The highway winds through steep, rugged, breathtakingly beautiful terrain, but you don’t dare to be distracted and keep your eyes on the road. You grab the wheel, travel 60 mph, flanked by tracker trailers chasing or roaring past you. You have only one goal: to get through the gorge as safely as possible.”
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Robinson asked her audience to imagine what it would be like to be a bear, deer, or moose trying to cross I-40. She pointed out the importance of inclusiveness when planning how different species should interbreed.
“Not all individuals or even species are wired the same,” she said. “They can be curious, but careful. Adaptable, but fearful. Some don’t trust the tunnels, and some don’t like walking on the rough surface of a pipe, or they have obvious physical limitations – for example, all of you with antlers, I’m sorry, you just won’t fit through this culvert. ”
Since 2017, two dozen federal, state, tribal and non-governmental organizations have teamed up as Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project, partnering with the state departments of transportation to cover 20 miles in western North Carolina and eight miles in East Tennessee more permeable to wildlife and safer for drivers. It was Wildlands Network that sparked discussions in 2015 about how to prevent wildlife deaths along I-40, and now their research in collaboration with partner National Parks Conservation Association is key to their success.
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During the COVID lockdown, these two organizations have joined four other partners — The Conservation Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, Great Smoky Mountains Association, and North Carolina Wildlife Federation — to allow donations to be raised for future road relief and structures for the crossing wildlife. fund at SmokiesSafePassage.org.
Learn more about the TEDx Asheville event and watch Nikki’s presentation coming soon texasheville.com†
Frances Figart is the Creative Director of the 29,000-member Great Smoky Mountains Association. Find her road ecology book A Search for Safe Passage at SmokiesInformation.orgread more about or donate to the collaborative project at SmokiesSafePassage.organd reach the author at [email protected]