The window for public comment is closing fast on the proposed methods to limit animal collisions in Targhee Pass.
Idaho Transportation Department opened the window for comment at the beginning of January after it released the environmental assessment and proposed five alternative plans to improve the four-mile stretch of U.S. 20 between Island Park and the Montana border. Some of the major outdoors groups in the region — Idaho Conservation League and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition — will meet in Victor on Thursday to rally support for their favored plan right before the deadline for comment expires the next day.
“We’re supportive of agencies doing their due diligence, looking at the science and making the best decision based on that data,” Greater Yellowstone coordinator Kathy Rinaldi said.
The conservationist groups’ favored plan is Alternative 2, which involves the construction of three wildlife overpass structures and the addition of fencing along the majority of that stretch of road. While the decision for the pass has not been officially finalized yet, the transportation department has already indicated its preference for a different plan.
“At this point the decision has pretty well been made,” ITD spokeswoman Megan Stark said. “We just have to look through all the comments and see if there is anything significant and new. Otherwise, we will keep moving forward.”
The plan ITD expects to go forward with is Alternative 3 and would focus largely on the installation of an animal detection system along the pass. The system would rely on up to a dozen animal radar sensors that would constantly monitor the nearby forest for large creatures and electronic warning signs that would warn drivers when an animal was detected.
The animal detection system also has strong support from the local residents. Fremont County Commissioners wrote a letter to the department in April supporting the use of the detection system as a potential way to reduce collisions with animals. Seventy-eight percent of the county residents voted against the idea of the animal overpasses in a non-binding vote during the November election.
Some residents were concerned that the fencing that would be involved in the alternative would limit their access to public lands, although the environmental assessment largely stated otherwise. Fremont County Commissioner Lee Miller said many residents also were worried about the cost difference between the two proposals.
“With what’s going on around the state with our infrastructure falling apart, we think there are better ways for that money to be used,” Miller said.
ITD estimated the overpasses and wildlife fencing would cost between $25 and $30 million, while the animal detection systems would come in somewhere well below $20 million.
Rinaldi argued about the effectiveness of the animal detection systems, which has varied widely in other areas and often succeeded more when combined with fencing and other deterrents for the wildlife. She also said that the cost would be mitigated by the 50-year lifespan of the wildlife pass.
“It’s not just people in Fremont County that use it and we think ITD should be building a safe road for everyone,” Rinaldi said.
The environmental assessment found that 66 crashes had occurred in the pass between 2009 and 2013, 16 of which were collisions with wildlife.
Idaho Conservation League will discuss the Targhee Pass and other major projects in the region on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Knotty Pine Supper Club in Victor. Public comment can still be provided to the Idaho Transportation Department through Friday by emailing email@example.com.