Wildlife Crosswalk Unveiled

Designed to keep animals out of the road, system first of its kind in U.S.

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When Arizona Game and Fish research biologist Norris Dodd unveiled the nation's first technologically advanced wildlife crosswalk Monday, he said the system should accomplish one goal: Behavior modification.

"Hopefully, we'll get people to slow down and change animal behavior," Dodd said.

The roadway animal detection section (RADS) -- just east of Star Valley -- will improve driver notification and wildlife monitoring to reduce the number of vehicle-wildlife collisions on a three-mile stretch of Highway 260.

Traffic on the two-lane highway through Preacher Canyon serves as the main passageway to the growing White Mountain area of the state.

The road is marked by heavy traffic, animal migration and speeding.

Dodd said, during a two-day monitoring period, he tracked 136 vehicles traveling more than 105 miles per hour.

Speed and traffic, combined with more than 2,500 large-animal crossings in four years, has increased the rate of wildlife collisions. In 2005, AZGFD recorded 15 deer and elk accidents in Preacher Canyon alone.

RADS is based on a system of fencing and surveillance, which works with existing infrastructure such as bridges and underpasses, to discourage highway crossings.

"We know this fencing is critical," Dodd said.

An electrically-charged, barbed-wire fence sits 60 feet off the highway. Animals that encounter the barrier are met with a minor jolt of electricity -- 4 milliamps. The zap is enough to guide the animals along the fence, encouraging a pathway to the crosswalk.

"The fence serves as a block and funnel," Dodd said. "This is one of the most aggressive projects in the world."

The crosswalk system incorporates a network of military-grade infrared cameras, Linux-based tracking software, speed gauges, global positioning system and other surveillance equipment. As the cameras detect wildlife, a radio signal is sent to a large, flashing warning sign on the side of the highway, alerting drivers to the presence of animals. Simultaneously, AZGFD monitors the movement of animals. A separate system, contracted by ElectroBraid Fence in Halifax, Novia Scotia, records and archives the images and data.

"This is the first wildlife crosswalk in America," said David Byron, president and CEO of ElectroBraid Fence. "This is just like an urban crosswalk. We're replacing the push button with a camera."

Animals are attracted to the foliage that grows alongside the highway. The convex shape of the asphalt allows water to collect on the shoulders of the road, encouraging the growth of vegetation.

After a two-year evaluation period, the multi-agency coalition responsible for the RADS project, including AZGFD, the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Forest Service, will use its strengths and weaknesses to develop other applications.

"ADOT is very interested in this project," said Tom Goodman, ADOT senior engineer from the Prescott district. "So, we'll see what kind of numbers we come up with."

Over the coming months, researchers will fine-tune the system, refining everything from sensitivity and reliability to the type of power. Currently, it uses two separate sources: Solar on one side of the highway and electricity from power lines on the other.

The entire cost of the project, funded in part through state and federal grants, came to $700,000.

"This is a living laboratory," Dodd added. "We're trying all kinds of different technologies."

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