Monday, March 28, 2011
Kudos for wildlife crossover bridges or a waste of taxpayer revenues - a question you'll have to determine yourself

Butch Meriwether
Butch's Brew

There have been numerous comments placed on the various blogs and conversations have occurred amongst people in regard to the three wildlife crossover bridges that were constructed on Highway 93 as it passes through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area south of Hoover Dam.

Many heated debates have been waged between individuals sitting on bar stools in the local watering holes while patrons sip on cool beverages and the verbal wars have even spilled over onto the blogs.

Some supporters say kudos to the various agencies for the decision to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to help protect the Desert Bighorn Sheep from vehicles traveling Highway 93 and to help proliferate their species. However, there are just as many people who believe the spending of $4.8 million for the wildlife crossover bridges was a total waste of taxpayer revenues especially since some individuals are allowed to track down and kill some of the sheep.

Many of the anti-wildlife crossover bridge (I'll call them) protesters say the funds could have been put to better use. They believe the economy is in such a state of dilapidation and the Federal Government, Arizona legislatures and Mohave County officials "are in high gear" cutting the budget which in turn hurts seniors, poor and needy who reside in our county. One particular comment appeared on the Kingman Daily Miner's (KDM) electronic website in regard to a story about the bighorn sheep that made me chuckle when I came across it. One blogger said the main reason the three wildlife crossover bridges were constructed was so the sheep on the left side of the road could have sex with the sheep on the right side of the road.

Yes, even I jumped on the preverbal soapbox on KDM's website and "shouted from the highest mountain top" about my feelings about the wildlife crossover bridges and the Desert Bighorn Sheep in general. I questioned the validity of the actual expense figures for the wildlife crossover bridges and all associated costs, and especially why the Arizona Game and Fish allowed the killing of younger rams if state officials were attempting to conserve, enhance, and restore Arizona's diverse wildlife resources. Remember the more rams, the ewes are happier because they have more mates to choose from.

Even Arizona Game and Fish Spokesperson Zen Mocarski chimed in on the blogs February 24 and 25, 2011, by saying, "It does bother me a bit when I see inaccurate postings. ....The funding for the overpasses was federal (U.S. Federal Highways), not state. The money was allocated long ago. The number one cause of wildlife extinction remains fragmentation and loss of habitat. From the Game and Fish point of view, this effort is designed to help minimize the impacts of a four-lane highway. Of course ADOT must look at driver safety. U.S. Federal Highways also provided a good portion of the research funding and Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society donated a substantial amount as well." He also went on the say that if anyone has questions regarding this project, please feel free to email him at A - ZMocarski@azgfd.cov.

Well, it seems that I was to only person who seized the opportunity to accept Mocarski's challenge to email him with questions about the three wildlife crossover bridges. And I was pleasantly surprised that he took the time to research and answered all of my questions in an expeditious manner. If he didn't know the answer the question to a particular one, he directed me to the Arizona Department of Transportation that could answer it.

I asked a lot of pointed questions about the project and also about the Desert Bighorn Sheep program in the Black Mountains in general. So I decided I was not going to attempt to summarize the questions and answers. Instead, I will publish them exactly as they were asked by printing a (Q - BM) and Mocarski's responses by printing a (A - ZM). If the response came from Arizona Department of Transportation Kingman District Public Information Officer Michele E. Beggs, I'll indicate it by printing (A - MB).

I hope the questions I asked will clarify some of the questions and concerns raised by people. Will they answer all of everyone's; probably not and it will more than likely cause individuals to ask more questions.

Ok, here are the questions and their responses:

Q - BM: When did the first discussions begin about constructing crossover bridges for the bighorn sheep along the Highway 93 corridor?

A - ZM: Initial discussions about wildlife overpasses began as long ago as the early 1990's. In 2001, when final word of the bypass bridge and expansion of the highway from two-lanes to four, these discussions heated up. At that time, underpasses were slated for bighorn sheep. Game and Fish received funding from U.S. Federal Highways and the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society to collar bighorns along the Black Mountains range to study movements as part of the Phase 1 research effort. The US Highway 93 research effort ran from 2004-06 and involved the study of bighorn movement, especially near the highway in an effort to find the best locations for the planned underpasses. In order to determine whether or not underpasses would be effective, additional sheep were captured near State Route 68, where three underpasses were already in place. This segment of the study ran from 2006-07. The findings suggested desert bighorns, which are visual animals, do not like underpasses. While they did occasionally use them, they were clearly not effective. Along Highway 93 it was clear bighorns looked to cross the roadway at ridgelines. Plans for underpasses were scrapped and work began on designs for overpass structures. The end result was overpasses at mile markers 3.3, 5.2, and 12.2.

A - MB: Federal and state laws require the Arizona Department of Transportation to examine a wide range of environmental impacts prior to roadway construction. ADOT strives to have the least possible impact on the environment when it is building or improving a highway.

Three required wildlife crossings have been constructed on US 93 to protect motorists and provide a safe crossing for the Desert Bighorn Sheep, which are native to the Black Mountains.

Q - BM: What was the total cost incurred (from inception of the program here) for the bighorn sheep program for the Black Mountain area, and Highways 68 and 93 on the Arizona side?

A - ZM: If we are talking about research dollars, then it was a little over $700,000.

Q - BM: How much more did the higher fences cost per mile versus the regular height barbed wire fences that are normally constructed alongside the highway?

A - ZM: I think you'd have to speak to ADOT regarding this.

A - MB: A multi-agency decision was made to add 7-foot fencing to discourage crossing at the roadway level and guide wildlife to the bridges. Over 30,000 feet of 7-foot fencing was added to the project. The additional amount of fencing was $176,478.

Q - BM: How much did Arizona Game and Fish Department pay toward the total cost of the project, not just the bridge itself?

A - ZM: Game and Fish paid $300,000 toward the bridge. There are additional monitoring costs paid for by Game and Fish.

Q - BM: Where did the revenues come from that the Arizona Game and Fish and Game utilized for the program?

A - ZM: Not sure I completely understand the question, but sportsman dollars would be the primary funding source for the personnel who gathered and analyzed the data, which has been supplemented by Federal Aid.

Q - BM: How much did Arizona Department of Transportation pay toward the total cost of the project, not just the bridge itself?

A - ZM: ADOT would have to answer this question. Most of the funds were U.S. Federal Highways.

A - MB: ADOT's project team of highway and bridge engineers designed the wildlife crossings. The cost of the three wildlife crossings was $4,800,471 (95 percent of the total $71.3 million construction project was federally funded).

Q - BM: How much did Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society pay toward the total cost of the project, not just the bridge itself?

A - ZM: None of the ADBSS money paid for the bridge. Their money went to the purchase of the tracking collars and for monitoring purposes. The sportsman group contributed $145,000 from 2008 to 2011.

Q - BM: Did the Sierra Club donate any funds for the project?

A - ZM: No.

Q - BM: Was the Sierra Club one of the driving forces to cause the crossover bridges to be constructed?

A - ZM: No. U.S. Federal Highways was the biggest driving force behind this effort. They listened to our requests and made it happen. We would be nowhere without them.

Q - BM: What other conservation groups were involved with the bighorn sheep crossover bridge project?

A - ZM: Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society. ADBSS assisted not only with funds, but volunteered as spotters during the capture effort. These are folks who find a location to scout and look for bighorns. When found, they call it in, and the information is relayed to those in the helicopter.

Q - BM: Did any of the other conservation groups donate funds for the project?

A - ZM: No.

Q - BM: How much was donated by private citizens for the project, not just the bridge itself?

A - ZM: None.

Q - BM: Did the Federal Government provide any funds or grants for the project?

A - ZM: Yes. Funds for the highway were provided by Federal Highways and funds for research were supplemented through the Federal Aid PR funds. The bypass bridge over the Colorado River, at $240 millions, was also federally funded.

Q - BM: Was any Federal Highways Funds utilized for the project?

A - ZM: See above.

Q - BM: Was the cost of the design and determination of where the three crossover bridges would be located in the original engineer study for the highway-widening project or was it a separate study?

A - ZM: The design was rolled into the project, but the GPS placement study was an after-the-fact separate study once everyone realized that placement and design were extremely important following the results of the study along State Route 68.

Q - BM: Who determined the design of the crossover bridges?

A - ZM: ADOT engineers worked on the design based on Game and Fish input on bighorn sheep behavior and tendencies.

A - MB: Federal and state laws require the Arizona Department of Transportation to examine a wide range of environmental impacts prior to roadway construction. ADOT strives to have the least possible impact on the environment when it is building or improving a highway.

Q - BM: Why was it determined that the bridges would be so large (wide)?

A - ZM: Bighorn sheep are very visual animals. A clear line of site from one end of a ridgeline to the other is an important design feature. Also a narrower deck would leave any wildlife attempting to utilize the structure quite exposed to the visual and auditory characteristics of the traffic below. Evidence suggests that sufficient levels of these traffic byproducts would act as a deterrent and prevent appropriate usage of such structures by our target species. In addition, we did not know what would work since no one in the world had ever attempted this for desert bighorns, so better to make it wider as there was no going back if they failed.

A - MB: Three required wildlife crossings have been constructed on US 93 to protect motorists and provide a safe crossing for the Desert Bighorn Sheep, which are native to the Black Mountains. The overpasses are up to 100 feet wide and 203 feet long. The wildlife crossings are part of a construction project which widened an existing 15-mile section of US 93 south of the Hoover Dam from a two-lane road to a four-lane divided highway. The project was completed before Thanksgiving.

Q - BM: You mentioned that the bridges cost less than $2 million each. Was the cost of the three bridges the same or how much was the exact cost of each one (starting with - I'll call it) #1 closest to the dam, #2 in the middle and #3 furthest from the dam?

A - ZM: Two of the three bridges (mile posts 5.2 and 12.2) are virtually identical. The one closest to the dam, MP 3.3 was the largest of the three and did cost more. Game and Fish added $300,000, with a $300,000 match) to get the 3.3 overpass widened as they were all slated to be the same size. We selected the 3.3 overpass as this was where a higher amount of sheep activity occurs relative to the entire stretch of roadway.

A - MB: The expansion of US 93 to support the new Hoover Dam Bridge would not have been possible without the inclusion of these bighorn crossings.

ADOT has dedicated nearly half a billion dollars to widening and improving US 93 from Wickenburg in Maricopa County to Hoover Dam over the last several years. ADOT's long-term vision is to transform this highly traveled route into a four-lane divided highway through the entire 200-mile stretch. The US 93 series of projects is a priority for ADOT and has become a significant addition to our state highway system to more efficiently move people, goods and services.

Q - BM: How much was spent on monitoring camera equipment?

A - ZM: There are monitoring devices in place, both video and still.

Q - BM: How many cameras were purchased and are they only used for the crossover bridges or some now installed on Highway 68 wildlife underpass?

A - ZM: Cameras were installed on the State Route 68 wildlife underpasses for "Phase 1" of the project in which use of those underpasses was assessed. Since then those cameras have been used on various projects throughout the state, including the overpasses on US 93.

Q - BM: Are the cameras remotely monitored or do Game and Fish personnel have to actually drive to the cameras to see what images were captured?

A - ZM: The equipment is in place to study usage. While we have collared a number of sheep, it is important to monitor use from a population standpoint, not just the few animals with collars.

Q - BM: If the personnel have to actually drive to the cameras, how many individuals complete the task and how often?

A - ZM: We do have someone check the equipment. This individual also checks on collar welfare and coordinating with contractors and ADOT.

Q - BM: If the personnel have to actually drive to the cameras, how many hours are spent doing so and the mileage incurred?

A - ZM: This will be minimal.

Q - BM: Were additional bighorn sheep monitoring collars purchased for the project? If so, how many were purchased and the costs?

A - ZM: We've put out about 37 collars since November, but all (or at least nearly all) of these are refurbished collars outfitted for a significantly reduced price.

Q - BM: What other additional equipment had to be purchased for the bighorn monitoring program in order to design and implement the construction of the crossover bridges?

A - ZM: The short answer is none. The bighorn research project entails capture, collaring, monitoring, analysis of the data, and recommendations on implementation. All of the equipment that we utilize is either outlined among the responses to the other questions or includes supplies that we utilize for a variety of projects from something as small as a compass to something as large as a truck. So most additional equipment was already in hand, and nothing else was purchased for exclusive use on this US 93 project.

Q - BM: How much was spent toward the transportation of media and other interested/supportive individuals during the bighorn sheep program during the last five years?

A - ZM: None that I'm aware of. I did meet with Las Vegas television, UNLV television, and the Kingman Daily Miner at the project site. All were responsible for their own transportation to the site. Once meeting at a pullout, I drove media to capture locations due to construction taking place and not wanting a caravan (it was a safety issue). The big bypass media and public effort was not about the sheep overpasses, it was for the bridge. There was no ceremony for the wildlife overpasses. Despite early media attention, many members of the public remained uncertain about the purpose of the three overpasses. Recent media attention has been more widely read and watched.

Q - BM: Are the inflatable boats used for the bighorn sheep monitoring workshop program for interested persons owned by Game and Fish or do they rent them? If they are rented, how much is spent on the boat rentals?

A - ZM: This is not a monitoring effort. It is a watchable wildlife effort open to the public, but limited by boat space. Cost is not associated with the project. However, the boats are rented through my budget, which is Heritage funding.

Q - BM: How much did it cost for the fixed wing aircraft, helicopters and their flight crews that were used during the various bighorn sheep searches?

A - ZM: Rental of a helicopter will run between $800-1,000 per hour and fixed wing is about $200 per hour. The overall cost is about $10,000 per capture effort.

Q - BM: Is Game and Fish continuing to rent aircraft and flight crews for the program? If you're continuing the use of aircraft, how much is it costing and how often?

A - ZM: For the research project, Game and Fish will only rent aircraft for future captures if needed. The Department purchased the satellite collars specifically so we would not have to fly to check status of the sheep. However, we will continue to fly surveys to obtain population information in the fall. This effort is not associated with the overpasses and is paid for through sportsman dollars.

Q - BM: Was there additional cost incurred for scientists, biologists and other individuals during the bighorn sheep crossover evaluation program period?

A - ZM: This was all included in an overall budget.

Q - BM: Were other scientists, biologists and personnel that do not work for Game and Fish utilized for the evaluation phase of the program?

A - ZM: While we have not paid for the assistance of external biologists, we have received input and collaboration from biologists working for various entities such as the National Park Service and Northern Arizona University. The report production (including analysis and recommendations) has been performed by internal biologists.

Q - BM: Were any of the funds generated from the ORV tags utilized for the bighorn sheep program?

A - ZM: No. Those are dedicated funds.

Q - BM: If not, what are the revenues generated through ORV tags used for?

A - ZM: These funds are to support off-highway vehicle efforts. They support law enforcement, education, outreach, and trail improvements.

Q - BM: I keep seeing comments that about ten sheep/vehicle accidents occur along Highway 93 near the dam each year. How many vehicle traffic sheep kills have been actually documented on Highways 68 and 93 since the desert bighorn sheep program began ten years ago? Please break down the figures by year and location (Highway 68, 93, etc.).

A - ZM: Game and Fish standpoint, road kills can be significant to a population. However, the overpasses are primarily about minimizing the potential impacts of fragmentation. To properly interpret road kill data, one must consider that reported numbers are a biased representation of reality. Any numbers you see are likely to be conservative because bighorns and other animals can be hit, run off, die somewhere else, and there's never a report generated.

This written, it has been estimated approximately 10 sheep vehicle collisions per year based on a combination of ADOT data and Game and Fish personnel observations of carcasses and road kill. When the highway was closed to semis following the September 11 attacks, the rate of road kill dropped significantly. Given the cost of collisions to society from both the motorist point of view and as a recreational/hunting point of view, these structures can pay for themselves quickly.

Q - BM: Would you say the biggest natural predator of the sheep in the Black Mountains is the mountain lion?

A - ZM: Focused entirely on the question, the answer is yes. However, newborns are susceptible to predation from coyotes, golden eagles, and bobcats in particular. Once full grown, however, mountain lions are the primary predatory animal.

Q - BM: But due to the lottery or commonly referred to as a draw for the hunting of those and their dwindling numbers, has the human become their natural predator?

A - ZM: No. First, their numbers in the Black Mountains are increasing now, no longer dwindling. Survey numbers have shown an increase the last few years. Licensed, legal hunting of bighorn sheep has little overall impact on the population as a whole. Lions and other predators are indiscriminate in what they take; ewes, lambs, and rams. Legal hunts involve only rams. It is important to note the primary funding for bighorn sheep conservation comes from permit dollars and sportsman groups. Legal hunts should never be confused with poaching, which happens little in the bighorn population because each sheep taken needs to be checked out and tagged. Anyone bringing a bighorn sheep to a taxidermist without a tag is reported to Game and Fish.

Q - BM: There has been a disparity in the numbers bighorn sheep reported and estimated in the Black Mountains and along the Highway 68 and 93 corridors. What is your best guess to the actual numbers?

A - ZM: I'm unsure about there being any disparity. Population numbers are always estimates. There is no way to count every single bighorn sheep. However, since suffering a die-off in the early part of this century, Game and Fish has flown yearly surveys in the Black Mountains. Following disease and drought, the population dropped to about 400+ bighorns. The last survey estimate was approximately 850.

Q - BM: How many bighorn sheep are estimated to be in Black Mountains south of Highway 68?

A - ZM: 337

Q - BM: How many bighorn sheep are estimated to be in Black Mountains north of Highway 68?

A - ZM: 52

Q - BM: How many bighorn sheep are estimated to be in Black Mountains near the Hoover Dam on the west side of Highway 93 on the Arizona side?

A - ZM: 211

Q - BM: How many bighorn sheep are estimated to be in Black Mountains near the Hoover Dam on the east side of Highway 93 on the Arizona side?

A - ZM: 243

Q - BM: Why does Game and Fish allow the killing of younger rams?

A - ZM: Game and Fish used to have a minimum curl requirement. However, because harvest is limited to a very small percentage of rams present in the population, it was determined there is no significant impact to the population by killing either a young or old ram. Because it is extremely difficult to obtain a tag for any of the sheep units in Arizona, hunters are selective and harvest of young rams is the exception rather than the rule. It's also important to remember that we have not defined 'young,' in the question. A 10-year-old ram in the wild would be quite old. Those from 8-9 are a bit more common. Rams reach mating age at 4 years.

Q - BM: How much revenue was gained by bighorn hunting permits for the last five years? Please break down them by categories in-state residents' numbers and costs and out-of-state hunters' numbers and costs.

A - ZM: I do not have a breakdown of in-state and out-of-state for you. However, if drawn for bighorn sheep, an in-state permit tag runs $272.50 and out-of-state runs $1,407.50. That all written, special auction tags and the big-game super raffle from 2006-2010 raised $1,704,249 for bighorn sheep conservation. The Game and Fish Commission annually awards three Special Big Game License Tags for each of the 10 big-game species to qualifying conservation organizations. The selected organizations must market and sell the tags. All revenue is returned to the Arizona Game and Fish Department to be directly used to benefit those species through wildlife and habitat management in coordination with the Arizona Habitat Partnership Committee. This money is used primarily for management of sheep, including water developments, habitat projects, surveys, transplants, research, radio collars, cameras, etc.

Q - BM: What are the revenues generated from hunting permits for bighorn sheep used for?

A - ZM: Regular hunting tag money, including drawing fees, goes back into the Department operating budget. The department spends money on annual surveys, transplants, water developments, research, personnel, etc.

Q - BM: What are the revenues generated from boat licensing, fishing permits, and hunting permits for other species used for?

A - ZM: This question is not relevant to the overpasses, but the above response answers some of the question. Fishing funds support a number of activities, including stockings, habitat improvements, clinics, etc. Boat registration in Arizona does not generate a lot of revenue, but supports law enforcement efforts. Boating efforts are also supported through the Coast Guard.

Q - BM: Is it a fact that the biggest justification for the wildlife crossover bridges is so the bighorn sheep on the left side of the highway can safely cross to the right side of the highway to perpetrate their species and not to stop sheep/vehicle accidents?

A - ZM: Yes and no. You need to view these overpasses not from a singular viewpoint, but from multiple agencies with differing missions. So, for Game and Fish, while sheep lost to vehicle collisions is always a concern, we manage populations, not individual animals (except when required under the Endangered Species Act). So, for Game and Fish, this is about the potential impacts of fragmentation (fragmentation and habitat loss remain the leading causes for animal extinction). From the standpoint of ADOT, motorist safety is a concern.

Q - BM: Last, but not least, what other costs have been incurred because of the bighorn sheep-crossover study that would not have been spent if the bridges were not a factor?

A - ZM: I can't speak for other agencies, but for Game and Fish that answer is, for all intents and purposes, it doesn't matter. Our mission calls for us to: conserve, enhance, and restore Arizona's diverse wildlife..." This is about protecting a species so it is there for future generations. In short, where would my bighorn sheep workshops be if there were no sheep to see? I feel, when the opportunity exists to mitigate the human impacts to wildlife movement, it is our job to do so. Studies suggest that once isolated populations reach a certain level they are extirpated within a few decades. It's important for people to remember that Game and Fish receives no general fund (state taxes) money. We have a number of funding sources, but the vast majority of our budget is user-pay based. License sales and excise taxes (pushed for by sportsman groups) on hunting (firearms and ammunition) and fishing equipment make up the majority of the Department's budget. There's some from Prop 202 (Indian Gaming) and Heritage Fund (Arizona lottery dollars).

The Federal Highways Department and the Arizona Department of Transportation also have mandates to consider impacts of transportation infrastructure on the persistence of wildlife. While budgets allotted for such considerations may seem significant on their own, they generally represent only a minute proportion of the money spent on a highway improvement project. Such is certainly the case here.

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