Crews are now putting the finishing touches on a large scale project in Yoho National Park aimed at reducing the risk of wildlife deaths on the Trans-Canada Highway and helping populations thrive.

Since spring 2017, workers have been building a $6.6M, 60 metre wide wildlife overpass, the largest structure of its kind in the mountain parks and very first for Yoho.

Officials say the pathway will help animals easily cross the highway to access food sources and intermingle with other populations that would otherwise be inaccessible without the risk of being hit by vehicles.

Trevor Kinley, a biologist, says placement of the overpass was carefully planned.

“We put it in this location because it’s near to a goat lick and we are trying to encourage long term for those goats that move across but also to encourage use by all other species.”

He says that the only way they were able to build such a project was that the Trans-Canada Highway was being twinned at the same time.

“We don’t build many of these; they are challenging to build. Our one chance to build them is when we are twinning the highway. We kind of go all-out when we get the opportunity.”

The idea of overpasses built specifically for wildlife isn’t new. The structures have enjoyed quite a bit of success in the Bow Valley with six of them built in Banff National Park.

Kinley says the bridges are just one part of the wildlife crossing network.

“One is the actual structures, the overpasses and underpasses, and the other part is the fencing. What keeps animals from getting killed on the highway is the fencing but of course, if you just build fencing it would block all that movement.”

Seth Cherry, a wildlife pathologist, says specific things needed to be taken into account when it came to building the overpasses.

“In choosing this location, we look at a number of things. First we look at modelling animal movement on a large landscape scale that’s even broader than Yoho National Park. We look at where animals are likely to be moving long distances and where they are crossing the highway so we get a general idea of our high potential crossing areas.”

He adds that a lot of work is also done to make sure that wildlife, specifically those species sensitive to the racket of a busy highway, aren’t disturbed while crossing.

To do that, workers installed a berm on either edge of the crossing and filled it with native trees, grasses, rocks and vegetation to make the man-made structure appear exactly as the park itself.

“Our hope is that eventually an animal will be able to stand where I am right now and look around and it will be very difficult to tell that it is on a man-made structure and not just part of the natural landscape.”

Once the landscaping is finished in the next few weeks, monitoring cameras will be installed and the overpass will be completely sealed away from human contact, to avoid any scents that would scare off wildlife.

“We don’t want the scents of people up here for wildlife that might deter them from crossing. Once this is open to wildlife, it’s only for wildlife,” Cherry says.

The wildlife crossing network is made up of 38 underpasses and six overpasses in Banff and three underpasses in Yoho.

There are no plans to build further wildlife crossing pathways further west at this time.

(With files from Kevin Green)