‘Critter shelf’ near Boonville aims to reduce roadkill

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So how did the rabbit cross the road? Or the squirrel, skunk or porcupine?

Oftentimes they didn’t — they got flattened on one of the highways that bisect their habitat.

But motorists may be seeing less roadkill along a section of Route 12 south of Boonville.

The state Department of Transportation and the Nature Conservancy are piloting New York’s first-ever “critter shelf” for wildlife. It was installed this summer inside a large culvert that goes under the highway. It is an elevated shelf that’s attached to the inside wall.

Even when the culvert holds water, small creatures can use the shelf to reach the other side of the highway.

At $28,375 this modification is far less expensive than completely replacing a culvert with a new one designed for wildlife passage. 

“In this area, the critter shelf is a low-cost alternative to the massive wildlife overpasses like you see in the Canadian Rockies for elk and other mammals,” said Alissa Rafferty, wildlife connectivity project manager with the Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter.

“If it works well here, it could be used in other parts of the Northeast,” she added.

The test site was selected based on several factors. Scientists have identified the 650,000-acre Black River Valley, a patchwork of forests, farms, businesses and residential communities, as an important linkage area for wildlife.

Enhancing wildlife pathways in this area gives animals a chance to move between the core forests of the Adirondacks and the Tug Hill, which is important for finding food and mates, adapting to habitat change, and preventing populations from becoming isolated.

Through wildlife tracking and computer models, Route 12 was identified as a significant barrier to wildlife movement. The culvert at this site is in good condition and keeps water away from the road above it.

Additionally, it is large, 14.4 feet tall by 13 feet wide, and surrounded by forest cover on both sides, including one side protected by a conservation easement, making it a good, strategic choice.

The Nature Conservancy used trail cameras, which are activated by motion and heat, to monitor wildlife activity at this site for more than a year prior to the shelf installation.

The cameras will stay in place for at least a year to help assess the effectiveness of the new walkway. 

The shelf, whose floor is metal mesh, was shipped to New York from Montana, where that state’s transportation department has found success using the technology. The design, which has been trademarked and patented, was developed and tested in Montana by transportation experts, a wildlife biologist and a steel manufacturer.

“We really appreciate our DOT partners for finding innovative solutions to mitigate dangers to wildlife while also keeping roads safe for people,” said Rafferty.

New York’s Department of Transportation is working on practices in the Adirondack Park to improve wildlife connectivity and reduce wildlife mortality. This includes targeted turtle fencing adjacent to the highway near Tupper Lake in Franklin County that prevents turtles from crossing over Route 30 and installation of stream structures at culvert crossings during projects to improve aquatic species passage. 

The Nature Conservancy and DOT are both partners of the Staying Connected Initiative  to maintain wildlife pathways between forested habitat.

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