Volume 13, Issue 30 ~ July 29 - August 3, 2005

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Got an Environmental Question? Send it to: EARTH TALK, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or submit your question at: www.emagazine.com. Or e-mail us at: [email protected].
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Safe Passage for Frogs, Amphibians
What are toad tunnels?

A group of conservation-minded Cornell University students invented toad tunnels in 2003 to help amphibians better negotiate a series of risky road crossings to springtime breeding ponds in a nature reserve in upstate New York’s Cornell Plantations. The students knew that frog populations were already in steep decline around the world for a variety of reasons, and they wanted to help.

When the students discovered that hundreds of toads, salamanders, newts and turtles were dying on one particular road each spring evening, they hatched a plan. Working with a local polymer company, they designed and installed a drift fence to help guide the critters to previously existing culverts underneath the road. The fences — dubbed toad tunnels by the students — even curved over on top to prevent hopping creatures from turning back. After a prototype test saved hundreds of amphibians one night at a particularly difficult road crossing, the students raised $5,000 to install toad tunnels at other key spots around the Cornell campus and beyond.

Cornell’s toad tunnels are just one example of hundreds of innovative structures designed to help wildlife make safe passage around, under or over various kinds of man-made barriers. In Amherst, Mass., similar tunnels help salamanders reach breeding pools each spring — and a Watch Out for Salamanders sign alerts drivers to slow down in sensitive areas. In Utah, fences channel deer across busy state highways around Park City, with white stripes on the roads serving as visual cues for the animals and alerts for drivers. Researchers estimate that road kill in the region has dropped by 40 percent as a result.

Sadly, roadways kill hundreds of millions of animals every year. With highways already covering more than two percent of the land in the contiguous 48 states and expanding, wildlife populations stand little chance of surviving the onslaught of automobiles into their habitat.

From the 1950s through the ’70s, the Humane Society of the United States sampled road kill data from across the country and estimated that one million vertebrate animals — mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians — were getting mortally familiar with the wrong end of a car bumper on U.S. roads every single day. But according to surveys conducted over the most recent decade, American motorists are only killing 500,000 vertebrate animals per day.

Mark Braunstein of the non-profit Animal Protection Institute isn’t sure if that trend means we’ve made progress or if animal species have simply gotten more scarce. Still, others remain optimistic that so-called wildlife-mitigation efforts undertaken in recent years have been paying off. In the old days, the construction of interstate highways took precedence over environmental concerns. But that notion may be falling by the wayside, as Congress last year allocated a record $3 billion to fund toad tunnels and other ambitious wildlife redirection efforts across the country.

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