By Jack McNeel -- Today correspondent
POLSON, Mont. - A desire to protect the wildlife population on the Flathead Reservation and make a busy highway safer has led to the construction of dozens of special passageways for the animals.
As biologist Tom McDonald, Salish/Kootenai, explained, ''The heart of the reservation is this kettle region of glacial potholes. It's a very diverse, rich country of wildlife.''
Passing through that region is Highway 93, the main route from Missoula to Glacier National Park. It bisects small lakes and ponds that harbor large numbers of waterfowl and other species, as well as the habitat that supports deer, elk and bear - including comparatively high numbers of grizzlies - and many smaller species. The highway's high traffic count leads to numerous collisions between vehicles and wildlife, killing the animals and causing auto repair bills for the drivers.
''There's a reason for the high mortality density,'' McDonald said. ''There's a lot of really nice habitat that is filled with wildlife. So there's a need for a lot of crossings.''
A decision was reached to create dozens of ''wildlife structures,'' essentially underpasses big enough for even the largest wildlife to pass beneath the highway in safety, rather than attempting to cross the highway. The structures vary in size, but most will be 12 feet high and 22 feet wide.
Whisper Camel is an enrolled member of the Kootenai and Salish Tribes who received her master's degree in wildlife management from Montana State University, where she was on a fellowship to work on Highway 93 preconstruction wildlife monitoring. She has now been on the job with the tribe's wildlife department just over a year, although she has worked during school breaks the past eight years. Monitoring the results of the wildlife structures will be a primary responsibility for her.
''It's 56 miles between Evaro, Montana, on the south end of the reservation and here in Polson on the north end. Twenty-eight crossing structures are completed, all underpasses, and another is under construction and almost finished. The total number to be built is 42. They are geared toward large carnivores - bears and mountain lions, and also ungulates including deer and elk,'' she explained.
''The initial idea came from the input of tribal wildlife staff, with further assistance from fisheries,'' McDonald said. ''There were also local nongovernmental organizations, environmental organizations and such that were putting pressure on. There was also a presence from collaborating agencies, support, from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.''
The State Highway Department oversees the construction aspect with state and federal funding. No money for construction comes from the tribe other than the salaries of personnel involved in the design, location and monitoring of the wildlife structures.
Three young female grizzlies have been killed recently in collisions with cars - alarming numbers for that segment of an endangered species population. Camel commented that she already had documentation of black bears using crossing structures. ''I've seen tracks in areas where it's grassland, areas where they're following a river corridor, and they're definitely expected up in the mountains in forested areas near Evaro. They're kind of using them all over the highway corridor.''
McDonald voiced a similar observation: ''I know they documented one grizzly bear crossing recently which was really neat, a good thing.''
The first structures were just completed a year ago, so they haven't been in long enough to see a change in road kills. Post-monitoring will be Camel's responsibility. ''I'm working with the Montana Department of Transportation,'' she said. ''We're waiting for infrared digital cameras to come and we'll be placing them in crossing structures to get pictorial evidence of animals crossing.''
Sand tracking grids have been placed in some crossings to provide track indentations to aid in monitoring, ''but they didn't work out quite right,'' Camel said. ''Some got omitted from the design process and in some cases the sand was too coarse to read. The alternative is getting the cameras.
''The budget is being finished right now for a larger post-construction monitoring process and will be submitted soon. A lot of people call in seeing animals walking through the crossing structures. Initially, right away in the first year, animals are already using the structures, so they are already considered a success,'' Camel said.