“New Mexico’s Wildlife Crossings Aim to Protect Victims of U.S. 550 Highway Collisions”

By | August 12, 2023



New Mexico is planning to build a network of wildlife crossings along U.S. 550 to reduce collisions and connect wildlife habitat. The first animal overpass is expected to be built on a stretch of the highway north of Cuba. The project, estimated to cost $90 million, aims to make the state’s highways safer for both humans and animals. New Mexico is well-positioned to secure federal funding for the project, as it was the first state to create a wildlife corridor action plan. The plan could direct hundreds of millions of dollars in spending over the next 20 years. Rio Rancho Observer reported

CUBA, N.M. — The Valley of Death is the term used by transportation crews who patrol U.S. 550, as it poses a significant danger to both wildlife and drivers.
To the north of Cuba, a dry riverbed intersects with the highway, creating a barrier for elk and deer attempting to traverse the area.
These animals often jump onto the roadway, resulting in collisions with vehicles traveling at high speeds of 65 mph. These accidents not only endanger the animals but also pose risks to drivers.
However, this particular stretch of highway may soon earn a new nickname as it has been identified as a priority for the construction of wildlife crossings as part of an ambitious plan to create a network of such crossings across New Mexico in the coming decades.
The primary objective of this plan is to enhance safety on New Mexico’s highways for both humans and animals, while also facilitating the connection of wildlife habitats.
Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, emphasized the growing recognition of the interconnectedness of ecosystems and the need to consider wildlife in the development of cities, counties, and roads.
Stewart recently joined a group of state officials on a tour of the U.S. 550 section near Cuba, where the construction of the first animal overpass in New Mexico is expected to take place.

Federal and state officials conduct a tour along U.S. 550 north of Cuba at a site where a wildlife crossing will be installed.
(John Austria/Albuquerque Journal)

This particular section of U.S. 550, known as the Valley of Death, will undergo significant changes to reduce collisions and provide connectivity for wildlife. The construction is set to be carried out in phases, with an estimated cost of $90 million and major work commencing in 2025.
A key feature of the Valley of Death will be the construction of an underpass, as the current culverts beneath the highway are too small for elk to pass through. The state Department of Transportation plans to reconstruct this section, creating a full-sized underpass capable of accommodating large elk and their antlers.
Michael Dax, the western program director of the advocacy group Wildlands Network, which organized the recent tour, expressed confidence in New Mexico’s ability to secure federal funding for the U.S. 550 project and other wildlife crossings. He highlighted that New Mexico was the first state in the country to develop a wildlife corridor action plan based on the movement patterns of large animals such as elk, black bears, mountain lions, and bighorn sheep.
This comprehensive 756-page document identifies priorities for reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions and provides objective data that will strengthen the state’s applications for grant funding, according to Dax.
State Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the House committee responsible for transportation projects, believes that wildlife corridors exemplify the kind of long-term public infrastructure that can be built using the state’s temporary surge in revenue. While New Mexico’s annual budget has reached a record high due to income from oil and gas production, Hochman-Vigil acknowledges the volatility of this revenue source and emphasizes the need to direct it towards one-time expenses like construction projects.
During the recent tour, Garrett VeneKlasen of New Mexico Wild spoke about his personal experience of hitting an animal on the road. Traveling at 75 mph, he collided with a bobcat that caused severe damage to his car, rendering it inoperable.
VeneKlasen stressed the grave consequences of such collisions, as they not only result in the loss of animal life or vehicle damage but also have the potential to cause fatal accidents if drivers swerve into oncoming traffic in an attempt to avoid wildlife.
According to VeneKlasen, collisions with wildlife are a common occurrence, with many individuals having either experienced a collision or a near-death encounter.
In addition to addressing the human impact, wildlife crossings have the potential to facilitate the connection of wildlife habitats, allowing animals to access food sources in areas affected by drought. Furthermore, these crossings could increase the opportunities for hunting deer and elk for food, benefiting outdoor enthusiasts.
Trent Botkin, the environmental bureau manager for the state Department of Transportation, highlighted the potential of these projects to prevent the unnecessary loss of animal life. He cited the frequent need to remove elk carcasses from the Valley of Death during the fall and winter seasons.
Over the next two decades, the wildlife corridor plan could direct hundreds of millions of dollars towards these initiatives. While some state funding is already available, Senator Stewart aims to secure additional funds during next year’s legislative session.