Georgia plans to add a half-dozen bear tunnels beneath State Route 96 in what will be a first-of-its-kind project for the state.
Preliminary plans have already been completed, and the state is now purchasing land along the highway, said Jeremy Busby, a project manager for the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Busby said the idea is similar to wildlife crossings designed for endangered panthers in Florida and other structures in some parts of the western United States.
It would be the first project of its type in Georgia, which has bears in three ranges: the north Georgia mountains; the Okefenokee Swamp near the Florida-Georgia line; and along the Ocmulgee River in central Georgia.
The State Route 96 project is designed to protect bears that roam along and near the river in the Ocmulgee and Oaky Woods wildlife management areas. Scientists estimate there are about 300 bears in that general area, though an exact number isn’t known, said Mike Chamberlain, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Georgia.
The wildlife crossings are part of an estimated $60.5 million overall project that involves widening the highway.
The passages will be placed in spots where bears typically attempt to cross, which often include places where streams and wet areas meet the highway.
“They are pretty much at low points in the topography where we felt the bears naturally travel,” Busby said. “We’re planning to install some fencing to funnel the wildlife into these crossings. So the bears will kind of be funneled underneath the road through these crossings.”
The timeline for building the wildlife passages will depend on funding.
Although the project is a first for Georgia, Florida has built wildlife passages for a variety of critters.
“It’s kind of like that old saying ‘if you build it, they’ll come,’ ” said Mark Lotz, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Everything that lives down here basically uses them, so they’re of great benefit.”