DOT to build bear underpasses in Ga. 96 project

When the state decided to widen Ga. 96 in Houston and Twiggs counties, objections were raised about the effect on the neighbors.

There may not be many human residents in the rural area near a network of wildlife management areas and refuges.

But there are a lot of bears.

And they had their own highway of sorts through the area long before people started using asphalt.

So the Georgia Department of Transportation is incorporating the bear routes into the project by building underpasses with fencing to funnel bears onto 8-foot by 25-foot dirt walkways beneath the highway.

“Bears have traditional paths they’ve used for generations for feeding and mating,” said David Spear, a DOT press secretary. “In all likelihood, they were there before (Ga.) 96 was. Certainly doubling the size of the road, bears will have that much more trouble trying to cross.”

Wildlife bridges and underpasses have been used for decades in other states; Florida has them for bears around Ocala and for Florida panthers in Alligator Alley, and Western states have huge bridges to allow herds of wild animals to safely cross highways. Such crossings reduce car collisions with other species such as deer and coyotes, too.

But these underpasses will be a first for Georgia.

The state has only three black bear populations. The others are in less traveled areas such as the Okefenokee Swamp and the north Georgia mountains.

The widened Ga. 96 will bisect the estimated population of about 300 black bears that live in and around the Ocmulgee and Oaky Woods wildlife management areas as well as Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, according to the DOT.

That section of Ga. 96 has seen 12 reported car collisions with bears since 2003, including two cubs this summer, according to the DOT.

That’s the second-largest number of bear strikes in Middle Georgia, said Bobby Bond, wildlife biologist for the state Department of Natural Resources. (The highest number occurs on U.S. 23 just south of Tarversville, he said.)

After the road is widened, it’s expected to become a major east-west truck corridor with many of the characteristics originally envisioned for the Fall Line Freeway as a connector between Columbus and Augusta, Spear said.

“Road kills will go up,” Bond said. “The last thing I want is to hear someone died hitting a 200- to 300-pound bear.”

Of the $132 million project, $5 million will pay for the 12 wildlife underpasses (a double crossing at six locations along the divided highway), Spear said.

“Some folks are going to question $5 million at a time like this,” Spear acknowledged. But he said the Federal Highway Administration, which is providing part of the funding for the road project, is requiring the bear corridors. And DOT leaders think the preservation of the bear population is an important goal.

A recent multi-year study of the Middle Georgia black bear population showed bears seemed reluctant to cross Interstate 16, and the widened 96 will be a similarly busy divided highway, Bond said. Without the crossings, the two highways could effectively chop the bear population — which already has a limited genetic mix — into thirds, he said.

Plus the bear corridors will prevent human deaths, Bond said.

“If that $5 million saves one life, then that thing has paid for itself,” he said.

According to a DOT news release, the agency plans to begin acquiring right of way for the project between Bonaire and I-16 this year. Actual construction is not yet scheduled. A related project widening Ga. 96 from I-75 through Bonaire will begin in 2012.

To reach writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.