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Where the Rudder Meets the Road

In his new book, ‘Crossings,’ author Ben Goldfarb charts a course through the complicated intersection of roads and ecology

"Roads are both logistical essentials and cultural artifacts," writes Ben Goldfarb in "Crossings." "To us, roads signify connection and escape; to other life-forms, they spell death and division." Photo by @franckreporter/Getty Images
"Roads are both logistical essentials and cultural artifacts," writes Ben Goldfarb in "Crossings." "To us, roads signify connection and escape; to other life-forms, they spell death and division." Photo by @franckreporter/Getty Images
by John Clayton

August 1, 1915 may be the most important single date in the history of Yellowstone. Almost a half-century after its founding, the first automobile legally entered America’s first national park.

Motorized vehicles changed the way people interacted with Yellowstone, no longer bunched together on stagecoaches that stopped at central hotels for dinners of canned food. Now more visitors could camp in the wild and choose for themselves which attractions were most worthy. Their experiences were freer, more democratic, and arguably richer than when mediated by railroads and driver-guides.

Yet roads in Yellowstone, as elsewhere, degraded people’s capacity to connect with nature. Yellowstone eventually became mostly a “windshield wilderness,” in the vivid phrasing of historian David Louter. Tourists’ relationships were as much with their vehicles and the road as with the surrounding environment. For many locals today, the park’s most salient feature has become its traffic jams.

ROADS: ALTERING PEOPLE AND NATURE
Road-nature tensions have now played out for more than a century. In his 1949 A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wished that “recreational development” could be “a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” A road, he felt, was a spiritual void that plowed over pristine wilderness with boosterism and consumerism.

But cars and roads don’t just alter people. They alter ecosystems themselves. Consider, for example, the classic 1950s Yellowstone roadside bear, eating candy from a vehicle’s window. “From the 1930s to the 1960s, a lot of black bears, especially, spent a portion of their day panhandling,” Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone’s bear management biologist, told me.

In other words, these bears altered their lives and the lessons they taught their young, based on the dynamics of acquiring this new food source. We speak of such bears being habituated to people, but that’s not quite right. People on foot or on horseback didn’t prompt the same scale of change. The real impact—the new ecological web—came from roads.
Americans hardly ever think about roads. But every time we drive one, we’re participating in alterations of our surrounding ecosystem in ways that scientists have only recently begun to fully understand.
In the late 1960s, Yellowstone closed garbage dumps while prohibiting recreational feeding, and bear populations plummeted. As their populations have recovered, “density has increased, and the habitat has filled,” Gunther said. Some bears have returned to roadsides to find their natural foods, especially females with cubs and subadults. They use roads as a human shield against aggressive backcountry bears.
           
A prime example is the world’s most famous bear, Grizzly 399, often easily visible from roads in Grand Teton National Park. Yet she’s a "roadside bear" because of ecological adaptation. As my esteemed colleague, Mountain Journal founder Todd Wilkinson has written, one of 399’s first cubs died in the deep backcountry, and she may have decided that the human-caused risks of living near the road were fewer than the boar-caused risks of living away from it.

So, she adjusted to the road and taught her cubs to adjust: to look both ways before crossing, to seek out elk guts left by hunters, to hunt elk calves in a road-adjacent place called Willow Flats that just happens to be in full view of Jackson Lake Lodge.

Roads, and road ecology, have altered 399’s behavior and formed her celebrity. In turn, of course, her celebrity has altered human ecology. She causes traffic to pile up in massive bear-jams. She and her fellow roadside bears bring tourists great delight, which causes the National Park Service to expend energy on their behalf. “We keep staff present when bears and wolves are foraging on the roadside,” Gunther said. “We manage the people” rather than hazing the bears away from the road.
Crossings does for road ecology what David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo did for island biogeography: introduce us to a new field of science through a tour of amazing places. 
And those people contribute to the local economy: a 2014 study found that roadside bears were responsible for 155 regional jobs, and that Yellowstone visitors would pay $41 more in entrance fees to ensure that bears remained along roads. The Park Service estimates that Yellowstone visitation benefited local economy in 2022 to the tune of $600 million, and that was the year tourism faltered following historic park flooding. Many of those visitors are hoping to see Yellowstone’s charismatic megafauna, including wolves, bison and grizzlies. Most never leave their cars.

Americans hardly ever think about roads. But every time we drive one, we’re participating in alterations of our surrounding ecosystem in ways that scientists have only recently begun to fully understand. It’s not very productive to pass judgement on these alterations as “good” or “bad,” since in the big picture roads aren’t going anywhere. But it’s incredibly important to acknowledge that these alterations exist; to think about them, understand them, and perhaps design ways to mitigate their worst implications.

IT ALL STARTS WITH ROADKILL
Author Ben Goldfarb surveys the science of road ecology and its implications in a delightful new book, Crossings: How road ecology is shaping the future of our planet, which was published in September. A Notable Book of 2023 from The New York Times, Crossings does for road ecology what David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo did for island biogeography: introduce us to a new field of science through a tour of amazing places.

Goldfarb began his career as a Yellowstone intern in 2009.  He recalls coming across an elk on the shoulder of Highway 20, her legs shattered by a passing car. The elk was not yet dead and was writhing in agony. Goldfarb retreated to the truck shortly after a ranger came upon the scene with a rifle. “I watched him shoot the poor animal in the head in the rearview mirror,” Goldfarb told me. “It was awful to see.”

Thus, Crossings begins with a history of roads, cars and large animals such as deer and elk—in other words, a history of roadkill. Deer are “North America’s most
Published in September by W.W. Norton, "Crossings" is author Ben Goldfarb's second book following "Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter."
Published in September by W.W. Norton, "Crossings" is author Ben Goldfarb's second book following "Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter."
dangerous wild animal,” Goldfarb writes, “implicated in three times more deaths than wasps and bees, forty times more than snakes, and four hundred times more than sharks.” Reducing roadkill, most everyone agrees, is worthwhile, honorable and cost-effective.

But as Goldfarb pays a winter visit to Wyoming’s Red Desert to help biologists measure the health of mule deer, the issue becomes more complicated. He’s highlighting the work of the Wyoming Migration Initiative, which has done so much to reveal how and where deer and other mammals migrate—or don’t. Radio collar data shows all sorts of animals approaching roads and then shying away from them. Not crossing reduces roadkill but at the price of thwarting migrations to and from important habitat. Animals can die from collisions, but animal populations can die from avoiding collisions.


Now even conservative politicians and state highway departments embrace crossings. In creating a Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program as part of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Congress cited 1 million vehicle collisions per year, which cost the nation around $8 billion. The program recently granted $24 million to Wyoming and $9 million to Montana.

Crossings reduce crashes, saving human lives and money. But, as Goldfarb shows, the cost-saving angle is a human-centered—and deer-centered—approach. After all, many types of animal migrations are thwarted by roads. Compared to deer, animals such as male grizzlies are more road-shy. Other animals, like pronghorn, are more claustrophobic. Still others, including reptiles and amphibians, are too small to cause costly crashes. Hence the value of wildlife overpasses, such as the one at Trappers Point near Pinedale, Wyoming. Yet overpasses cost on average six times more than culverts.

That’s where I expected the book to leave off. As a work of science journalism/advocacy, it would examine successful overpasses, such as those on the Flathead
Author Ben Goldfarb with a nonnative brook trout he caught in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, circa 2014. An invasive species, brook trout threaten the native Yellowstone cutthroat. Photo courtesy Ben Goldfarb
Author Ben Goldfarb with a nonnative brook trout he caught in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, circa 2014. An invasive species, brook trout threaten the native Yellowstone cutthroat. Photo courtesy Ben Goldfarb
reservation north of Missoula, in Alberta’s Banff National Park, and on I-90 in the Washington Cascades. It would be a useful document for people seeking to reengineer roads such as U.S. 191 from Bozeman to Big Sky to West Yellowstone, or U.S. 20 near Targhee Pass, but a bit tedious for the amateur scientist or armchair traveler.

I was wrong: although the book does all that, it’s also far more. First, Crossings is a terrific read, full of creative comparisons. Before radio collars, Goldfarb writes, biologists watched pronghorn disappear into the mountains “like loose change vanishing into a sofa.” Signs such as “Deer Crossing: Next 10 Miles” are so useless as to be “litter on sticks.” Eagles might linger at a carcass for hours, “nursing their repast like day-drinkers in a pub.” Crossings is worth reading just for the joy of having roadkill’s ubiquity explained by a perfect Simpsons reference.

Second, Goldfarb avoids blow-by-blow accounts of implementation politics. For example, after a nonbinding 2018 referendum in Island Park, Idaho, overwhelmingly rejected wildlife overpasses in that community from fear of federal overreach, Goldfarb covered the story for High Country News. But he leaves that story out of this book because he says it’s such an unusual outlier in the history of wildlife-crossing politics. “It felt like telling that story in the book would give the impression that these structures are often controversial, when in fact they almost never are,” he told me. “Funding is an obstacle, but politics generally aren’t. Nobody wants to hit an animal. So strong community support typically exists.”

BEYOND THE OVERPASS
Crossings frees itself from local politics by traveling far, both geographically and intellectually. Goldfarb unlocks the secrets and implications of road ecology in visits to, among other places, Brazil, Tasmania and a majority-Black neighborhood in Syracuse, New York. Places with more roads face bigger problems thus offer more opportunities for creative solutions.

Meanwhile, Goldfarb uses those excursions to explore deeper questions. Can “roads create habitat as well as destroy it”? Pollinator habitat along I-35, aka the “Monarch [Butterfly] Highway,” allows an evaluation of pluses and minuses. A chapter on road policies in the U.S. Forest Service presents them as “proxy battlegrounds in a cultural war: What are public lands for, and who gets to decide?” Finally, Goldfarb admits that he was at first curious whether advances could be exported to other countries, but then realized the folly of “scientific imperialism” and the wisdom of learning from advances elsewhere. In Brazil, for example, some roads have been privatized, and the road management contracts include incentives for the contractor to reduce roadkill.

Crossings feels like news because, to most of us, “road ecology” is a new and unexplored science. Indeed, Goldfarb interviews an old-timer who says, “I remember when we made that term up.” Readers thus experience a narrative of unfolding knowledge: early pioneers simply counted roadkill, while today’s researchers can use data and genetics to answer increasingly sophisticated questions such as where exactly to put crossings (from pinpointed vehicle crash data) to analyses of chemicals in the tissues of roadkilled creatures (from the U.K.’s pungently named “Project Splatter”) to how inbreeding (caused by the road and its traffic, what Goldfarb calls a “moving fence,” reducing the number of potential mates) can increase the likelihood of extinction.
Not crossing reduces roadkill but at the price of thwarting migrations to and from important habitat. Animals can die from collisions, but animal populations can die from avoiding collisions.
Goldfarb almost turns that old Greater Yellowstone bugaboo, “multiple jurisdictions,” into a positive. In the Washington Cascades, he notes, a Forest Service biologist was especially keen on overpasses, and eventually convinced collaborating agencies to join in. (Some Forest Service employees have been especially keen on road ecology because so much valuable habitat in national forests is bisected by superhighways.) On the Flathead reservation, success came from listening to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes’ insistence on doing things differently. Empowering their perspective—best summarized as “the road is a visitor”—led to major advances.

In other words, road ecology is shaped by human ecology. As we grow in our understanding of different cultures, and our ability to synthesize solutions from the best of those cultures, we become better able to mitigate the impacts of roads.

There’s much to provide hope. We learn more every year. Yet as Goldfarb notes, roads, traffic, sprawl and motor-dependent recreation keep increasing. “The essential insight of road ecology is this: roads warp the earth,” he writes. The effects are worse than dams, poaching, megafires, oil spills, and other oft-bemoaned trends. The great value of Crossings is to help us see.

IMPLICATIONS FOR GREATER YELLOWSTONE
Like any form of ecology, road ecology is not only complex, but context-specific. Each landscape and situation and form of interaction may result in different dynamics and different benefits from any proposed action. And that complicates the task of turning insights into policy.

For example, should we prioritize wildlife crossings within Yellowstone National Park itself? On the one hand, there’s plenty of wildlife, a “single” landowner, and the opportunity to simultaneously address traffic problems. In Alaska, Denali has restricted private vehicle travel on its road since 1972, and sometimes protects wildlife by closing its road even to buses. A park in Brazil simply closes its roads at night, so that the landscape can again belong to the animals. Each park is different, of course, and Yellowstone faces unique challenges.
A 2017 bison jam in Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park. CC photo
A 2017 bison jam in Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park. CC photo
Nevertheless, there are interesting parallels to a century ago. In the three years prior to August 1, 1915, Yellowstone spent $2.2 million to buttress bridges, install culverts, build retaining walls, and otherwise retrofit its road system to handle automobiles. That budget, which came from the U.S. Army—then managing the park—was almost ten times the inaugural 1916 budget for the entire National Park Service. (It was recouped in part through an entry fee of $10 per vehicle, which would be $288 in 2023 dollars.) Might a similar retrofitting of park infrastructure—this time to accommodate science and wildlife—deserve similar investment today?

On the other hand, there are also reasons to deprioritize new crossings within the park, most fundamentally that the road ecology inside Yellowstone is different from outside Yellowstone. For example, park tourists are generally willing to stop and let bison cross the road in front of them. Roads are narrow and speed limits low. Structures such as the 1939 Gardner River Bridge, east of Mammoth Hot Springs, already provide admirable space not just for the river but also for animals to safely cross underneath. Such structures arguably contribute to the park’s aesthetics, whereas many modern crossing solutions—such as eight-foot roadside fences to funnel animals toward underpasses—might detract from the visitor experience.
Looking to the south, the Gardner River Bridge spans the Gardner River at the North Entrance Road in Yellowstone National Park, July 1983. Photo courtesy Library of Congress
Looking to the south, the Gardner River Bridge spans the Gardner River at the North Entrance Road in Yellowstone National Park, July 1983. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

In the past few decades, wildlife advocates have increasingly focused on creating interregional wildlife corridors to allow for populations to mix and decrease the likelihood of localized extinctions. Without corridors, individual animals could thrive within Yellowstone even as their species was doomed because their gene pool couldn’t also include animals from elsewhere.

The barriers to those corridors are typically roads. These may be multilane interstate highways with speeding vehicles, and they may also be county or state roads; they may pass through a patchwork of landownership and land-use patterns. In other words, they may pose huge practical challenges to constructing appropriate solutions. And in the big picture, they may deserve higher priority than crossings within national parks.

SCIENCE TEES UP SOCIETAL CHOICES
The situation is further complicated by a changing climate, and the human migrations it causes. Do we build more crossings where we expect or hope that charismatic species may move as their current habitat gets too warm? Do we also focus on trailheads, mountain biking routes, and scenic areas that fuel amenity-based growth—a companion field known as “recreation ecology”—because the human side of the ecological equation is just as important? Do we build more crossings in the fastest-growing, wealthiest communities because that would also save the lives of more BMWs?
“The essential insight of road ecology is this: roads warp the earth,” Goldfarb writes. The effects are worse than dams, poaching, megafires, oil spills, and other oft-bemoaned trends. The great value of Crossings is to help us see.
Our roads have disrupted wildlife migrations and ecosystems in ways we didn’t understand when we built the roads. Now that we understand, we must do something. To be effective, that “something” will need to be on the level of altering our infrastructure rather than altering our individual behaviors—such is the extent to which humans’ genius for collaboration has altered ecosystems.

Of course, any “something” we do would represent further micromanagement: Choosing which species to save, and how. “We built roads to subjugate nature,” Goldfarb writes, and thus created a situation in which we have “no choice but to subjugate it further.”

It seems a far cry from the hands-off wilderness philosophy that has been so dominant since passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. It also gets at a key current question: are humans part of nature, or separate from it? Goldfarb favors the latter: “We’re a different kind of organism,” he told me. “The scale of our landscape-modifying activities is a big source of stress for ecosystems.”

Yet as Goldfarb highlights, the "Road Era" has also been full of conservation success stories. Many of them have happened in Greater Yellowstone, including saving bison from extinction, recovering grizzly populations, and making the Path of the Pronghorn the country’s first federally designated wildlife migration corridor. Crossings helps us all imagine how scientific advances could power the next generation of success stories.

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

John Clayton
About John Clayton

John Clayton writes the newsletter Natural Stories. His books include Wonderlandscape: Yellowstone National Park and the Evolution of an American Cultural Icon, The Cowboy Girl, and Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands. He has lived in Greater Yellowstone since 1990.

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