Motorists on U.S. 95 north of Bonners Ferry may not have a tiger in their tank, but they could have a bear under their wheels.
Or, a deer … Maybe, even a lion.
As part of a road construction project east of Copeland more than a decade ago, the state highway department and local wildlife agencies opted to install three wildlife underpasses on the stretch of highway prone to vehicle and animal collisions.
The concept wasn’t new. Keeping animals out of traffic using wildlife crossings under highways began in France in the 1950s.
When the U.S. 95 crossings were added, however, in 2004 on the section of highway about 13 miles north of Bonners Ferry, it was a trial run for the Idaho Transportation Department and for Idaho Fish and Game.
In addition to the concrete-lined tunnels, boulders and fencing were placed along the road to guide animals into the underpasses, and prevent them from crossing the pavement.
Using motion triggered game cameras, Idaho Fish and Game monitored the underpasses every couple weeks between 2005 and 2010, and again for the past two years, said state biologist Kara Campbell.
Initially 12 wild animal species were monitored using the tunnels.
“Surprisingly, the most detections occurred immediately after completion,” Campbell said.
In all, 779 crossings were recorded in the first five-year period. They included three domestic cats and three dogs over the five-year period, two moose, 15 elk, 15 raccoons, 62 snowshoe hares and 597 whitetail deer.
IDFG noticed tunnel use drop off after a couple years, and then pick up again before monitoring efforts were stopped.
Two years ago, in an effort to determine to what extent the tunnels were being used, by what species, and how often they were used, the game department started monitoring the cameras again, at longer, six month intervals.
When Campbell, who checks the cameras with Norm Merz, a wildlife biologist with the Kootenai Tribe in Bonners Ferry, shuffled through the latest digital images, she again saw a lot of deer and elk in the photos just as during the first, five-year study.
One of the images however surprised her.
“There it was … right in front of me … a picture of a mountain lion,” she wrote in a IDFG article about the tunnels.
It was the first mountain lion that had been documented using the tunnels, she said.
“There was never a mountain lion detected over the (first) five-year monitoring period,” she said.
The images also captured black bear, bobcat, skunk, coyote, and snowshoe hare inside the underpasses over a two-month period.
Another underpass north of Chilco and south of Silverwood captured mostly deer crossing under Highway 95 — and also many people, according to IDFG.
Over the last two years, more than 6,800 animals, big and small — they include skunks, turkeys, grouse, rabbits and squirrels — were detected as well as more than 1,300 whitetail bucks, 2,300 does, 1,450 elk including 144 bulls, three mountain lions, 38 black bears, and 23 coyotes were among animals recorded moving through the four tunnels.
Biologist Wayne Wakkinen, said animals tend to use the tunnels more if they can see through to the other side. That often requires flat terrain.
“If it looks like a black hole, they tend to be more afraid to use it,” Wakkinen said. “If they can see through it, they’re more comfortable.”
There are five wildlife tunnels across the state. The North Idaho tunnels were built for approximately $500,000 each, according to the Idaho Transportation Department. They are about 14 feet wide, 22 feet tall and 100 feet long.