DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Since workers began the $134 million widening of Interstate 4 last year, they have seen at least one bear and one coyote killed on the stretch of highway between DeLand and Daytona Beach.
Roads pose threats to animals, such as Florida black bears, which have roamed the Sunshine State's forests for centuries. More than 30 bears have been killed attempting to cross the interstate in the past two decades, so the state is constructing a series of wildlife crossings beneath the six lanes of traffic.
"Underpasses are a novel approach to correcting that," said Julie Wraithmell, director of wildlife conservation for Audubon Florida. "Nobody likes to see wildlife lose their lives on the roads."
Another reason for the crossings is safety. The last thing motorists traveling at 70 mph or more want to see is a bear wander into their path.
When the project is complete in January 2015, about five miles of fence will bear-proof both sides of I-4, and lead creatures to three large underpasses, as well as five smaller crossings, according to Steve Olson, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation. Also, farther east, a bridge over the Tomoka River will contain two 22-foot walkways for animals to cross.
In all, transportation officials estimate the wildlife crossings - including the embankment, bridges, walls, fencing and crossings - will cost about $8 million.
Margie Patchett, founder and executive director of the political-action committee Volusia Tax Reform, questioned the cost of the crossings at a time when the United States is recovering from a serious recession.
"I love animals," Patchett said. "But $8 million dollars for animal underpasses? That is outrageous and unbelievable. This is an example of how our government at every level is out of control."
State officials say the underpasses could save money by averting accidents. Wildlife-vehicle crashes account for between 4 percent and 10 percent of all motor-vehicle accidents and cost the United States an estimated $8.4 billion annually, according to a 2008 Federal Highway Administration report to Congress. About 200 human lives are lost in such accidents annually, the study showed.
Transportation officials receive many requests from the public and wildlife organizations to provide crossings, according to Stephen Tonjes, the department's senior environmental scientist.
"We only consider them when they are demonstrated to be the most effective and practicable mitigation for potential harm to resources of proven public value," Tonjes said.
The state has installed a number of wildlife crossings on other projects, notably Alligator Alley, or Interstate 75, in South Florida, and State Road 46 between Seminole and Lake County. But this is the first such crossing on I-4.
"I-4 is really a barrier to wildlife movement," said Elizabeth Fleming, Florida representative of the group Defenders of Wildlife. "There's a lot of road kill. It's long overdue, in our opinion."
Natural Florida is a diverse habitat for a wide variety of species ranging from the sea to the scrub. But as the state developed in the second half of the 20th century, some species struggled. The state lists the Florida black bear as threatened, while the Florida panther is federally listed as an endangered species.
Florida panthers once ranged across the Southeast, but saw their population dwindle to less than 40, primarily because of hunting, said Daniel Smith, a research associate in biology at the University of Central Florida.
Panthers have come back to an estimated 150 but they need to expand beyond their primary breeding grounds in South Florida, Smith said.
A few male panthers have made their way as far north as Volusia and Flagler counties. One was seen at Tomoka State Park in 2008, while another was killed on Interstate 95 in Flagler County in 2005.
Fences guide them away from dangerous encounters with fast-moving vehicles and underpasses allow them to range north -- both of which are important for the panthers' survival, Smith said.
"In order for them to really recover, they need to colonize new areas," said Smith, a DeLand resident.
Bears, too, range widely in search of food. A conservation corridor that stretches through Volusia and parts of Flagler includes large areas of publicly owned land north and south on I-4 and is considered a crucial link in a much larger statewide corridor designed to provide pathways for bears, panthers and other animals. Researchers say the underpasses are critical to protect animals moving around in that corridor.
Cameras posted at underpasses in other areas of Florida tell a story of the diversity of animals that use them, Audubon's Wraithmell said.
The cameras have revealed a "Noah's ark" of creatures besides bears and panthers - alligators, turtles, deer, raccoons and snakes, Wraithmell said. "It's amazing."
MARK HARPER, The Daytona Beach News-Journal
Information from: Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal, http://www.news-journalonline.com