Thursday, June 29, 2006

Stop and see the wildlife

(A bear appears to begin making a quick about-face as a car approaches in this photo by Chuck Bartlebaugh, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Transportation.)

National Park visitors are killing the wildlife they've come sometimes thousands of miles to see.

“I call this the kill zone,” Moose Mutlow, a contractor with the Yosemite Institute, said of a sunlight-dappled stretch of road in Yosemite. “Animals crossing here just don’t stand a chance."

Tourists gawking at towering granite faces or roaring waterfalls often speed eagerly from one sight to the next, giving wildlife little chance to scurry out of the way, The Associated Press reports.

Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the nation’s most popular, with more than 9 million visitors annually. It harbors turkeys, possums, groundhogs and bears in its half-million acres of mountainous forest. The park records about two traffic-related bear deaths a year, spokeswoman Nancy Gray said. “Speed is a factor,” Gray said. “A lot of time people are trying to get somewhere a lot faster than they should, and they’re in wildlife habitat.”

Mutlow spent 290 days surveying 30 miles of Yosemite highway twice daily. He found 250 animals, including squirrels, possums, skunks, coyotes, deer and bear, classifying them according to his “Appearance Index Matrix” — a subjective scale that ranges from “victim appears to be sleeping in a poorly chosen location” to “victim resembles badly molded pancake,” and “victim disassembled and spread liberally around area.”

In the grassy wetlands south of Montana’s Glacier National Park, so many western painted turtles are run over that observers might wonder if drivers take them for speed bumps. With up to 500 cars an hour traveling at 70 mph or more, it’s easy to see why many don’t make it, said Kathleen Griffin, a University of Montana researcher.

Over three years, Griffin counted 1,040 dead turtles along four miles of U.S. 93.

Standing aside the roadway, Mutlow shakes his head as another driver speeds over Ribbon Creek. “Drive a little slower,” he said. “It’ll add five minutes to your trip, but hey, you’re here to relax.”

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