Cars, Horicon Marsh Wildlife On Collision Course

By Colleen Kottke
WAUPUN, WI — The primal urge of nature dictates why animals cross a roadway.

Wildlife advocates at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge just want to help them get to the other side safely. Each year, hundreds of animals and birds are killed while trying to cross the three-mile stretch of Highway 49 bisecting the northern portion of the Horicon Marsh.

Motorists traveling the concrete corridor connecting Highways 41 and 151 are greeted at the entrance of the marsh by a roadkill tote board, proclaiming the latest wildlife fatality total.

This number can fluctuate greatly each day, depending on the season and movement of wildlife, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological technician Jon Krapfl, who travels the highway daily, searching for the latest victims.

Finding A Solution
Short of lowering the speed limit or re-routing the existing highway, the refuge staff and its partners — the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT), the Friends of the National Horicon Wildlife Refuge group and the USDA Forest Service — are opting to try an innovative and affordable approach to reduce the wildlife death toll.

The project under consideration consists of erecting bird deflection poles at intervals along the roadway. The objective of the poles is to create a perceived barrier, forcing birds to fly up and over traffic. If successful, the project has the potential to serve as a model for other grassland and wetland areas worldwide.

During the study, which is expected to span the nesting and migration season from April through November, refuge staff will experiment with placement and height of the poles. Cost of the project is estimated at $34,000.

Krapfl is uncertain whether or not birds will respond to the deflection poles. But it’s worth a try to save birds like the back-crowned night heron, the least bittern and the moorhen, all state species of concern that have been killed on the highway. Just last week, Krapfl found five least bitterns smashed on the busy thoroughfare.

“This is a very secretive bird that isn’t seen very often,” Krapfl said. “You know how I know they’re here? I see them killed on the highway.”

Scratching the Surface
Unfortunately the deflection poles will do little to keep earthbound creatures like the Painted Turtle, the Muskrat and the River Otter from ending up beneath the wheels of vehicles traveling along the roadway. Traffic studies from the DOT estimate that nearly 5,000 vehicles cross through the Horicon Marsh each day.

This is a problem for birds and animals determined to cross over and back to the Radke pool on the north side of the highway. Driven by instinct, creatures set off in search of a mate, a place to raise their young, find safety from predators or simply to find a better dining spot, said Refuge Assistant Manager Diane Kitchen.

“To them, the highway is not perceived as a barrier or a dangerous place,” Kitchen said.

According to refuge records, most wildlife fatalities occur near the pump station and during the spring nesting season. Solutions for protecting terrestrial creatures would be to erect barrier fencing along the ditches or build a culvert large enough for animals to pass through under the highway.

“It’s going to be a big project to get things changed and create a wildlife friendly crossing,” Krapfl said.

Hard Habit To Break
Among the creatures most vulnerable are the young, especially goslings. Each spring, between 30 and 35 families of Canada Geese can be found milling along the shoulder of the highway. Small greenish-yellow goslings pick among the gravel just inches away from semi-trailers thundering past at 60 mph or more.

“There on the shoulder of the road, they have gravel to aid digestion, grass to graze on and water nearby. How much better can it be?” Krapfl said with a rueful laugh. “Unfortunately, they’ve become more bold with traffic. Honking horns do nothing, and they’ll even come after vehicles to protect their young, thinking they’re more powerful.”

It’s not unusual to see entire families of geese wiped out on the road.
“Some people will think, ’20 less geese, no loss.’ But we can’t control where they raise their young. If they were hatched and raised there, chances are the next generation will be raised there also,” Krapfl said.