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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Northwest Passages: Author Ben Goldfarb says wildlife crossings are crucial for animal survival

Ben Goldfarb, left, author of “Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping the Future of Our Planet,” joins Spokane’s Eli Francovich, author of “The Return of Wolves,” Thursday on the Northwest Passages stage to lead a discussion of an eye-opening account of the global ecological transformations wrought by roads on Thursday at the Bing Crosby Theater.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Revi)

Everyone has seen a dead deer or squirrel on the side of the road because it failed to avoid a speeding car.

“What we don’t see are all of the animals who never tried to cross the road at all,” said Ben Goldfarb, author of “Crossings: How Road Ecology is Shaping the Future of Our Planet.”

Goldfarb spoke with former Spokesman-Review outdoors editor Eli Francovich about his New York Times bestseller Thursday night at the Bing Crosby Theater in downtown Spokane as part of The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club.

The book dives into the disastrous impact roads can have when they prevent animals and other wildlife from crossing.

Goldfarb said his interest in the subject started a decade ago when he visited a wildlife crossing, structures like bridges or underpasses that allow safe passage for species across a road, on U.S. Highway 93 in Montana.

The “big, beautiful bridge” helps grizzly bears, elk, moose and others cross the highway, he said.

“It was just the most wonderful, beautiful experience,” Goldfarb said. “We do so much on this planet to make animals’ lives harder and more dangerous, and here is this multimillion-dollar piece of infrastructure that we had built explicitly to make their lives easier and safer.”

Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass, which Goldfarb mentions in his book, also provides wildlife crossings.

“That whole network of wildlife crossings up there is really serving the entire ecosystem,” Goldfarb said.

Becoming roadkill isn’t the only problem animals face from infrastructure.

Road ecologists calculated any highway with more than 10,000 cars a day, which is most major American highways, serves as a barrier to most animals, Goldfarb said.

Interstate 80 in Wyoming is an example.

Mule deer essentially never cross the interstate, and as a result, can’t access low-elevation valleys they need to survive during the winter, Goldfarb said. Some years, up to 40% of herds starve to death because they can’t reach those crucial habitats.

“Those aren’t animals that are being killed on the highway by cars, right?” Goldfarb said. “Those are animals being killed by this constant wall of traffic that are cutting them off from habitat.”

The problem may only get worse. Goldfarb said 15 million more miles of road are expected on the planet by midcentury as developing countries build highway systems, some slated to go through the last intact habitats on Earth.

Goldfarb admitted that roads are crucial, connecting people to schools, hospitals and even Goldfarb to other destinations on his book tour. Striking that balance is important for the survival of biodiversity, he said.

Goldfarb said making cities more bikeable and walkable, and less amenable to vehicles, is one way to help animals. Rural areas, where wildlife is concentrated, might be a tougher task.

“Transit and walkability are fantastic solutions in urban areas where people have cars, but we’re kind of stuck with the car in the rural West especially, and that’s where the wildlife is,” Goldfarb said. “That mismatch is, I think, a really tough challenge to solve.”