August 22, 2023

Legislators hear update on project for wildlife corridors

New Mexico is a largely rural state which means long roads through forests and hills where wildlife of all sizes cross roads that humans use for travel.

The interim Transportation Infrastructure Revenue Subcommittee heard about the Wildlife Corridors Action Plan’s progress by representatives from the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

“(Wildlife corridors) are areas where you may have some wildlife-vehicle collisions within this area,” NMDOT Environment Department Acting Manager Trent Botkin said. “But it’s more notable that these are wildlife quarters or migratory paths for large mammals which have been cut off by our infrastructure and so these are less of a priority from a safety standpoint, but are important from wildlife corridors and ecological standpoint.”

The project that is furthest along is the first and second phases of a corridor on U.S. Highway 550 north of Cuba.

The scoping report for that project was completed in July and the project is expected to be on the NMDOT Request for Proposals list this month.

Construction on the project is expected to begin in two years.

The wildlife crossings are overpasses and underpasses for the animals to take so they will be less likely to be hit by oncoming traffic.

“The overpass is a cast concrete arch that is precast and installed on top over the roadway in areas where there were bluffs on both sides, so that you essentially are developing a kind of a flat road path across the top over the roadways coupled with game fencing to strategic areas funnels the animals to where they can go across,” Botkin said. “Currently, New Mexico does not have a dedicated wildlife overpass. We first dedicated (a) wildlife underpass— meaning it’s not just a bridge but it’s built for it— is under construction north of Raton right now. Pretty much every other western state is substantially ahead of us with wildlife crossings, dedicated underpasses and overpasses.”

New Mexico is the first state to create a statewide Wildlife Corridor Action Plan that lets NMDOT and the state Department of Game and Fish know where their target areas are, Botkin said.

The plan is updated annually.

In 2019, the legislature directed Game and Fish and NMDOT to create a Wildlife Corridors Action Plan which was completed in June 2022.

During the 2023 Legislative Session, the legislature established the Wildlife Corridors Fund $5 million appropriated for design and construction of wildlife crossings.

“The next step would be in January 2024, as the legislature considers funding the Wildlife Corridors Fund or additional projects,” Botkin said. “So the wildlife crossing project timeline basically is the same process for a construction project, but it’s why the things kind of take a while to roll out.”

The scoping report will take between six and 12 months to complete, the design process is 12 to 18 months and construction can take up to two years to finish, Botkin said.

“In between those is also the hurdle of procurement which can take four months, sometimes up to a year just to get through the RFP process,” Botkin said.

The plan recognized wildlife-vehicle collision hotspots across the state. It predominantly focused on elk, deer, black bears, bighorn sheep, pronghorns and mountain lions with other species taken into account.