Assessment of Elk Highway Permeability by Using Global Positioning System Telemetry



Abstract: Highways have significant direct and indirect impact on natural ecosystems, including wildlife barrier and fragmentation effects, resulting in diminished habitat connectivity and highway permeability. We used Global Positioning System (GPS) telemetry to assess Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) permeability across a 30-km stretch of highway in central Arizona, USA, currently being reconstructed with 11 wildlife underpasses, 6 bridges, and associated ungulate-proof fencing. The highway was reconstructed in phases, allowing for comparison of highway crossing and passage rates during various stages of reconstruction. We instrumented 33 elk (25 F, 8 M) with GPS receiver collars May 2002 to April 2004. Our collars accrued 101,506 GPS fixes with 45% occurring within 1 km of the highway. Nearly 2 times the proportion of fixes occurred within 1 km of the highway compared with random. We think elk were attracted to the highway corridor by riparian—meadow foraging habitats that were 7 times more concentrated within the 1-km zone around the highway compared with the mean proportion within elk use areas encompassing all GPS fixes. Elk crossed the highway 3,057 times; crossing frequency and distribution along the highway were aggregated compared with random. Crossing frequency within 0.16-km highway segments was negatively associated with the distance to riparian—meadow habitats (rs = -0.714, n = 190, P < 0.001). Mean observed crossing frequency (92.6 ± 23.5 [SE] crossings/elk) was lower than random (149.6 ± 27.6 crossings/elk). Females crossed 4.5 times as frequently as males. Highway permeability among reconstruction classes was assessed using passage rates (ratio of highway crossings to approaches); our overall mean passage rate was 0.67 ± 0.08 crossings per approach. The mean passage rate for elk crossing the highway section where reconstruction was completed (0.43 ± 0.15 crossings/approach) was half that of sections under reconstruction and control sections combined (0.86 ± 0.09 crossings/approach). Permeability was jointly influenced by the size of the widened highway and associated vehicular traffic on all lanes. Crossing frequency was used to delineate where ungulate-proof fencing yielded maximum benefit in intercepting and funneling crossing elk toward underpasses, promoting highway safety. Use of passage rates provides a quantitative measure to assess permeability, conduct future pre- and postconstruction comparisons, and to develop mitigation strategies to minimize highway impacts to wildlife.