How Cyclists Are Helping Montana's Roadkill Research

Oct 15, 2019

A new citizen-science project is attempting to help Montana transportation and wildlife officials gain a better understanding of hotspots for wildlife crossings and fatal collisions with vehicles along state highways. The project is calling on bicyclists to survey over 130,000 miles of road for roadkill over the next three years.

Life-long bicyclist Tim Marchant is biking along Highway 200 near Ravalli and after more than 15 miles of riding, he pulls up to his first dead deer. All that’s left are its bones.

On a mobile survey app, he answers questions on everything from species type to how far the carcass is off the road.

Tim Marchant documents a decomposed deer along Highway 200 in Montana as part of Adventure Scientists’ Ride for Roadkill data collection project, Oct. 2019.
Credit Aaron Bolton / Montana Public Radio

A little bit down the highway is another deer that was struck by a car. Its soft tissues are mostly intact, but its skin shows signs that it’s been here for a while. It looks like deer peanut brittle.

Marchant has been biking this stretch of road for 30 years. Typically he’s moving as fast as he can, but today he’s riding at a leisurely pace to make sure he sees roadkill off the highway and documents it.

Typically, data collection is done by Montana Department of Transportation workers in trucks. But on a bike, Marchant can more readily see and smell the dead critters. He says deer are incredibly common, but as he continues down the road, there’s something on the shoulder he says is rare.

It’s a young black bear that looks like it could have either been hit by a car or fallen the 15 feet or so from the top of a vertical cutout in the rocky hillside. Marchant documents the large drop and other nearby infrastructure such as fencing, and the railroad.

This data collection is part of what Adventure Scientists is calling its Ride for Roadkill project. The Bozeman-based nonprofit is using bicyclists like Marchant to survey all 11,000 miles of Montana’s state highways four times per year.

Tim Marchant documents a dead black bear along Highway 200 as part of Adventure Scientists' Ride for Roadkill data collection project, Oct. 2019.
Credit Aaron Bolton / Montana Public Radio

"These are people who are generally going to be biking anyway and we’ve asked them to incorporate data collection," says Adventure Scientists Founder and Executive Director Greg Treinish.

He explains that this ambitious project is actually a continuation of Adventure Scientists’ global program where for years, bikers and hikers have been collecting data on roadkill as they find it.

"And what we’ve learned is that there's really a pretty big need for more localized and intensive efforts in order to enable the decision making that we want to see from the project."

The first field season for the Montana data project kicked off in late September and just came to a close Sunday. The Montana Department of Transportation (DOT) and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) are partnering with Adventure Scientists. The agencies will receive datapoints on species-specific roadkill numbers, numbers of live animals along roads and info on nearby infrastructure.

DOT’s Tom Martin says that information, particularly on live animals, is more detailed than the data the department is currently able to collect.

"Say for instance there’s a group of elk or any type of animal adjacent to the highway, but perhaps they’re not crossing. That type of data can be useful to help us try to determine why aren’t they crossing," Martin says.

The data Adventure Scientists will be collecting will help DOT with input from FWP to include wildlife accommodations in road projects. Accommodations could be physical infrastructure like wildlife crossings over roadways, and crossing signs or less obvious actions like cutting back vegetation along roadways so drivers can clearly see animals, and reduced speed limits around blind corners.

But Treinish hopes the data can be helpful in other ways.

"There’s a great chance that we’re gonna be finding really cool information for migratory routes for these animals, about potentially seeing things like rare carnivores out there. So we want to make sure there’s a mechanism for capturing all of that."

Back on Highway 200, Marchant says the idea of this project excites him because he’s seen changes in the roadkill he finds along this highway. Just a few weeks ago, he found a dead grizzly.

"Probably the furthest one south that I’ve seen. I see them up at Ninepipes. This puts them right, like I say, right on the backdoor of the Ninemile Valley.”

While that grizzly won’t be a particular data point in this survey, this roadkill project is attempting to catch those types of changes in animal behaviors.

As Marchant stands near his car at the end of his survey, he says besides the smells and gruesome sites, he was happy to slow down and keep an eye along the road he has ridden along so many times.

Tim Marchant Bikes down Highway 200 near Ravalli scanning the ditches for roadkill as part of Adventure Scientists’ Ride for Roadkill data collection project, Oct. 2019.
Credit Aaron Bolton / Montana Public Radio

"You know, I’ve been the gerbil in the cage, riding, riding, riding. So now I’m getting a chance to maybe put it to a more purposeful use."

Marchant adds that he will continue to ride Highway 200 as part of this project through its completion in 2022.