By Michael Jamison, National Parks Conservation Association

A summer haze shimmers over blacktop, swirling amid the sizzling hiss of tire on tarmac. Piercing glints of sun—strings of cars and trucks and rumbling Harleys—flash fast and bright before vanishing around the bend.

On one side of the road, upland forests step into dry August foothills. On the other, cattail rushes shade pools of cool wetland. Trapped between these habitats the wide-eyed deer balk, blocked by sun-scorched metal guardrails, buffeted by the wind, set upon from either side—to step into this fray is as much a leap of faith as a calculated risk.

That age-old riddle, it seems, had posed the wrong question. The issue is not why the chicken crossed the road, but how. Or, to be even more precise, how the deer, the bear, the coyote, the elk, and the otter managed to cross the road.

And the answer, until very recently, was seldom, fearfully, and at great risk. But now there is a new answer to how the critters cross the road. Now they cross over and under, through thickets and brambles and in quiet shade along a whisper of clear water. Now, on U.S. Highway 93 North, they cross safely, and slowly, and surely unseen.

The designers of this stretch of road, a ribbon of blacktop drawn tight through the heart of Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation, say the number of miles and the number of crossings make this the most extensive wildlife-mitigation project of its kind in North America. Completed in 2010, it features 41 fish and wildlife crossing structures across 56 miles—overpasses and underpasses, culverts and bridges linking rivers and streams and ancient migration paths—all lined with more than 8 miles of exclusion fencing to funnel animals in the right direction. To the east, icy Mission Mountain peaks rise like white-haired elders, overlooking the valley below. To the west, prairies and pothole lakes are strung with miles of lowland marsh and fen. These diverse habitats are why the critters cross; the highway’s unique design helps them stay alive in the process.

“People subsisted and survived here for centuries thanks to the wildlife and the natural resources,” says Dale Becker, wildlife program manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “When you’re tied to the environment that closely, to the point of basic survival, then your entire culture becomes deeply entwined with the land.”

“Protecting our wildlife,” he says, “is really another way of protecting our culture. The road is just a road, but the Crown of the Continent is our home.”


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