The tragedy that most painfully defines America is roadkill. Nearly all of us participate almost every day in the wanton killing of other creatures — and too often our own kind, sometimes even our sons and daughters — so that we can race to work, buy things we don’t need, and travel in air-conditioned comfort.
This story of American loss hit me viscerally again last week, as it has countless times on my bike commutes, when I came upon a freshly killed Mink dead on the edge of Lakeshore Road, run over the night before as it tried to return to the main body of Split Rock Wild Forest from from Webb Royce Swamp. I’ve a special liking for members of the Weasel family, partly because I’m a woods wanderer myself, partly because their tracks on my frozen pond in winter tell such wondrous stories, partly for their sheer beauty.
For reasons beyond my ken, but in which I am complicit, Americans have chosen a transportation system that is inherently deadly. You cannot transport people and products long distances at high speeds without killing many of your neighbors. Neighbors we hit but do not kill “wind up wounded, but not even dead”, to borrow from Bruce Springsteen, in an unimaginable toll of suffering that may be even more immoral than the outright killing we cause. If we think about it at all, people assume roadkill is just the cost of doing business. The annual death toll in the US includes tens of millions of squirrels and other rodents, millions of raccoons and opossums, a half million or so deer, smaller but significant numbers of rarer species like moose and bears, and uncountable billions of butterflies, moths, and other insects. Thousands of people are hurt or killed each year in collisions with animals on roads. Do we really want to pay this cost for iceberg lettuce from California and plastic toys from China and the daily trip to the gym to stay fit?
Roadkill is an especially acute problem on some of the roads through our Adirondack forests, like Lakeshore Road between Westport and Essex. I find scores of dead animals on this road every year.
I believe in the long run we Americans must reform our whole transportation system, and urge other countries to do so, too. We must recognize that cheap oil will run out, convert to public transit and muscle-powered locomotion, live more locally, burn much less energy. Sooner or later, rising fuel costs and destabilized climate will force us in these directions even if we don’t have the sense to embark on safer softer paths ourselves. Yet even in the short-term, without fundamentally altering our transportation system, we can take many sensible modest steps to reduce the tragedy of roadkill and the fracturing of landscapes.
We can install wildlife crossings — underpasses or overpasses — on busy roads, like NYS Route 22 and I-87. We can close unneeded roads in the back-country, such as the long dirt roads that penetrate the Adirondack Forest Preserve, which will likely prove indefensible in the face of climate chaos anyway. Most important, we can slow down. Be ever aware that other creatures are trying to move about their daily lives, too, and that what for us may be travel-ways for them can be deadly road-blocks.
Note: The content in this blog post was repurposed and a revised version is included in John Davis’s book Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor published by Essex Editions on Nov. 21, 2017. Learn more about the book and where to buy it at essexeditions.com. Watch the book trailer below.