The Lewis Creek Association, together with the Monkton Conservation Commission, recently won the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) 2017 Environmental Excellence Award. The award recognizes the organizations’ work to bring environmental stewardship into the planning of the Monkton Wildlife Underpasses on Monkton-Vergennes Road.
The application for the FHWA award required a discussion of the project, its goals, intent, justification, and information about pre-grant monitoring. The underpass project began, noted LCA board member and Monkton Conservation Commission member Chris Slesar, with wildlife monitoring along the roadway. Slesar joined wildlife biologist and Monkton resident Steve Parren in keeping track of amphibians crossing at the site and the two volunteers noticed the importance of the area in amphibian migration, Slesar said.
“That’s when we cooked up this idea to try to retrofit the road with a wildlife crossing,” Slesar noted.
The site is important for several reasons, Slesar noted. Not only were numerous amphibians crossing the roadway there, but the types moving through were quite diverse, and many were rare. Some were species of greatest conservation need in Vermont, a designation that, according to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife website, recognizes species that are already threatened or are in decline in the state. Add a decent amount of traffic to the mix, and it became clear that a wildlife underpass would be a good fit for the location.
“We had some rare species you won’t find many other places in the state,” said Slesar, “and we had lots of them being hit.”
It wasn’t easy nor quick, with two applications submitted for design funds, and then two more for construction, from the FHWA transportation alternatives grant program. The second application was successful each time. The construction grant, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through Vermont Fish and Wildlife, was received in 2010 – a reimbursement program requiring a local match. More money came from a state wildlife grant program, direct appeals, an Indiegogo effort, anonymous donors, a bake sale by a UVM daycare, and other grants, including one from Defenders of Wildlife. The LCA kept socking the money away in an account until enough was amassed for the Town of Monkton to bid the job out. The underpasses were installed during the summer of 2015.
“It took years to raise the money,” Slesar said, later adding, “It was a town road, and it was a total grassroots effort to pull this together.”
The two underpasses are box culverts with open bottoms sunk into the ground, allowing groundwater to come up and keep the soil moist for amphibians, which migrate on wet, rainy nights. Manhole covers also allow in moisture from the overlying roadway.
With the underpass in place, volunteers continue to monitor the site. Wildlife cameras have shown that in addition to amphibians, mammals, including bobcats, raccoons, and porcupines, also make use of the underpass. And since amphibians’ bodies aren’t warm and don’t trigger the cameras’ infrared sensors, herpetologist Jim Andrews reprogrammed the cameras to take pictures at intervals, capturing amphibians as they move through the tunnels during the migration period.
The award recognizes the capacity for local organizations to make a larger-scale difference in the environment, noted Slesar.
“The notion of habitat connectivity and amphibian crossings and wildlife crossings can sometimes be seen as fringe, and really not benefiting a larger regional population, but I think this award really demonstrates that it’s not a fringe issue,” said Slesar. “This is a mainstream issue that a lot of people care about, and there are solutions.”