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March 1, 2022Episode 28. First, Do No Harm: When endangered species habitats lie in a roadway’s path.
FEATURING: Jett McFalls
Unintended encounters with cars and trucks are bad news for animals. Not only do creatures face dangers on existing roads, they’re often imperiled from the moment road construction begins. Assistant Research Scientist Jett McFalls talks about why protecting endangered snakes and toads is good for the creatures, and good for keeping road projects on schedule and on budget, too.
About Our Guest
Assistant Research Scientist
With TTI since 1990, Jett McFalls manages the Institute's Sediment & Erosion Control Laboratory. He has served as principal or co-principal investigator for numerous transportation roadside environmental studies, including erosion and sediment control; right-of-way vegetation and establishment; pollinator establishment and maintenance; wildlife/vehicle interaction; and wetland delineation. His work includes projects working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, and various state departments of transportation. McFalls has also authored several roadside environmental training and certification courses for various state and federal agencies.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Welcome. This is Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Animals of all types and sizes need to move about their habitats to forage, breed, and simply exist. And that movement can sometimes involve crossing over or through a road project at any stage of completion. If those animals enjoy protected status under the federal Endangered Species Act, their presence can cause construction delays and higher project costs. Jett McFalls is an assistant research scientist at TTI. He and his team are showing how protecting endangered snakes and toads is good — not only for the creatures, but good for transportation, too. Jett, thanks very much for joining us.
Jett McFalls (guest) (01:09):
Thanks, Bernie. It’s good to be here.
Bernie Fette (01:12):
Before we talk specifically about toads and snakes and the work that you’re doing with Texas A&M AgriLife, it might be helpful to folks to hear just a little bit of background about what the Environment and Planning Program does at TTI. Your job’s a little different. Please tell us about it.
Jett McFalls (01:29):
Sure, Bernie. Our program has a tradition of environmental research here and expertise through our work done in air quality and also water quality work we’ve conducted at our Sediment and Erosion Control Lab. And you’re right. That much of our research is not usually associated with the typical of transportation areas as some others might be. But we have found out that the research landscape is changing and we’re trying to broaden our reach when it comes to the types of projects we pursue. And as a result, it’s opened doors to be able to work with different colleagues and experts in other fields, which we don’t normally work. And we’ve also realized that everything that is part of our environment has a transportation connection to it.
Bernie Fette (02:07):
And that includes roadside vegetation, right?
Jett McFalls (02:10):
Exactly. Yes, sir.
Bernie Fette (02:11):
Which reminds me that we’re not that far off from wildflower season again. And when folks who are driving down the roads are marveling at how nice the roadside looks, we typically don’t think about how those vibrant plants and all of the other grasses along the side of the road have a very practical purpose. Basically we need those to help the road itself stay in good condition. Isn’t that right?
Jett McFalls (02:35):
Oh, absolutely. The TxDOT wildflower program is known internationally. They do such a great job, which we’ve all seen, most notably the bluebonnets and the wildflowers that come out in this spring. But yeah, that vegetation serves a bigger purpose than just the way it looks. It holds the soil in place. It treats the storm water that runs off of the roadway. And so we’ve done a lot of work with TxDOT on vegetation establishment, vegetation management. You’re gonna see an increased focus on pollinators along the roadside, too, as we get into more of that area.
Bernie Fette (03:07):
You mentioned, for instance, the storm water runoff that comes as a result of rain, which is also something that you get to simulate, right?
Jett McFalls (03:15):
Oh yes. Uh, out at our Sediment and Erosion Control Lab, we have have a facility out there, which we started about 1990. We have artificial rainfall simulators and some test plumes that simulate swells and ditches along the highway and rain, we can simulate rainfall up various amounts and we’re able to test how vegetation works to clean the pollutants and clean the sediment out of our storm water runoff. We’re able to evaluate erosion sediment control products. TxDOT has been charged with making sure that the storm water runoff coming off their roadway is contained so that sediment is not discharged from the site, because that sediment includes all the pollutants coming off of the roadway, such as the oils, the gas, uh, the leads from the tires and things like that. So we’re able to evaluate that. And we’ve been working on that for quite a while.
Bernie Fette (04:04):
Yeah. Who would’ve thought that simulating rainfall was a whole lot more complicated than just grabbing a garden hose and, and spraying. Right?
Jett McFalls (04:12):
That’s true. On our test, the intensity, the application rates, the height of the rainfall, the velocity of the raindrops all is controlled and taken into account.
Bernie Fette (04:22):
And even, even as I heard the size of the raindrops, you guys really get it down to a science. So if you can simulate rainfall, then simulating a habitat for endangered snakes and toads almost sounds like just another day at the office.
Jett McFalls (04:38):
Yeah, it is. It’s a little bit different. One of the things that we are able to do is evaluate the performance and the effectiveness of different products. And that’s what we’ve done now with this new project. We’re working with Texas A&M AgriLife.
Bernie Fette (04:52):
Yeah, but let’s talk a little bit more about that now. What is it that you and your team are working on with that group?
Jett McFalls (04:57):
Sure. Well, there are some federally endangered species out there and TxDOT is required to take measures to reduce the risk of road mortality and injury of these endangered species during construction. It’s very important that their construction areas are monitored. Make sure that these species are not killed or showing up on their construction sites. If they are, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is able to basically shut the job down and that’s gonna create all kinds of increased cost and delays in getting the construction site done. So it’s really important that that’s monitored. Two the animals that we’re looking at on this project specifically are the Houston Toad and the Louisiana Pine Snake. The Houston Toad is important because they help transfer nutrients between species that live on land and in the water. And the Houston Toad was actually the first amphibian to be listed as federally endangered on the Endangered Species Act. So its decline is basically a result of loss of habitat. Wetlands were replaced by urban development.
Bernie Fette (05:57):
You mentioned the Endangered Species Act, which was passed just one year short of half a century ago. So these protections have been around for a long time. And I guess the transportation connection has been around for just as long.
Jett McFalls (06:10):
Sure. You know, that Endangered Species Act introduced legislation to, uh, preserve and protect various species of plants and animals that could be facing extinction from land development and manmade environmental hazards. So it drives a lot of the things that we do today.
Bernie Fette (06:27):
That’s a good little history and background or profile on the Houston Toad. Can you share a little with us about the Louisiana Pine Snake?
Jett McFalls (06:35):
Sure. The Louisiana Pine Snake, it requires similar habitat and we’re losing that habitat rapidly. Vehicle mortality is a major threat to them. They’re rare because they spend most of their time underground and are very rarely seen above ground. They’re important because they do a good job in keeping the population of burrowing animals down in places other snakes don’t enter since they spend so much time underground.
Bernie Fette (06:57):
Right. Whenever you talk about vehicle mortality, that’s what most folks know, I think, as roadkill?
Jett McFalls (07:05):
Bernie Fette (07:06):
Unintended encounters with cars and trucks are, are bad for the animals we’re talking about and a lot of other animals, but not only do those creatures face dangers on existing roads; they’re often imperiled from the moment that road construction begins, right?
Jett McFalls (07:22):
Bernie Fette (07:23):
And that’s what your work on this project, I think, is about.
Jett McFalls (07:26):
Exactly. That’s the main focus on this because if, again, any of these species, any endangered species, besides just these two we’ve mentioned are identified and located on a TxDOT construction site or any construction site for that matter, that construction site can be shut down. So we’re looking at different ways to protect these guys. And one way to do that is to, uh, use what they call reptile exclusion fences. And that’s what this project is all about. We’re evaluating the effectiveness of exclusion fences.
Bernie Fette (07:58):
When you say exclusion fences, you’re talking about excluding the animals from the construction site, right? Keeping them out of that space.
Jett McFalls (08:05):
That is correct. And on this project, we are evaluating three different fences. Two are proprietary products, which means they’re just available on the market. And one is a product that TxDOT has developed and they’ve been using on their construction site. So because it’s important to protect these guys, we are evaluating these fences for efficacy, their material cost, their installation process, field durability. To be effective, this fence needs to prevent climbing. And it also has to have jump-outs designed to allow these guys to escape from the construction zone — a runway in case they’re trapped inside that area.
Bernie Fette (08:43):
And that’s in case they were already there whenever those fences were put up.
Jett McFalls (08:47):
Bernie Fette (08:48):
Okay. And you’re doing this in two steps. So can we talk a little about how phase one works and then how phase two is working?
Jett McFalls (08:55):
Sure. Phase one, we just wrapped up the first part of that out at our Sediment and Erosion Control Lab, where we built 18 pens, six of each of the three fences, and the species are placed in the pens and their activity is monitored overnight with video cameras to document their movement, both their successful and unsuccessful attempts. And this control testing was done over the summer months and will resume in spring. And since the Houston Toad and Louisiana Pine Snake are threatened, it’s important to note that we’re using proxy species, which are similar in size and movement. For the Houston Toad, we’re actually using the Gulf Coast Toad. And for the Louisiana Pine Snake, we’re using Corn Snakes.
Bernie Fette (09:35):
Almost sounds like you’re using stunt doubles —
Jett McFalls (09:36):
Bernie Fette (09:36):
Like you might, if this was a film or something, right?
Jett McFalls (09:41):
Exactly. And it was determined by AgriLife that these are very similar to the species that’s endangered.
Bernie Fette (09:48):
I’m glad that you brought up how they made that distinction because one of the things that you and I talked about before today was how their team and your team bring very distinct, very specialized, but complementary skill sets to the process. Uh, tell us a little about that.
Jett McFalls (10:04):
Yeah. We worked together really well with Texas A&M AgriLife. What they bring to the table is the knowledge of these species. And what we bring to the table is the expertise of knowing what goes on in the roadways and the rights of way with the vegetation establishment, management, and also the construction techniques that TxDOT may be using, and other things. We have the real estate and are able to construct these test arenas for this project.
Bernie Fette (10:32):
You’ve built a lot of different simulated environments. Is this the first time that you and your team have built an environment for snakes and toads?
Jett McFalls (10:39):
Bernie Fette (10:40):
Oh, now I guess you’ve got experience. So you can put that on the, on the agency resume.
Jett McFalls (10:44):
Bernie Fette (10:45):
You’ve already talked about phase one. Can you tell us a little about how the next phase of this is gonna work, which I guess is already underway.
Jett McFalls (10:52):
Yes. Like I say, phase one, we will start that up again in the spring. But also during that phase one, while we were doing this controlled environment testing out at the field lab in the fall, AgriLife identified actual right of way field locations where these species are known to live. I mentioned earlier Bastrop County.
Bernie Fette (11:11):
Jett McFalls (11:11):
And Robertson County. So there’s some known locations habitat for these species. So for the past year, AgriLife has been going out and actually monitoring these locations to, to determine the mortality rate of these snakes and toads. So now phase two, TTI staff is going out and installing about a mile and a half of these three different toad exclusion fences along TxDOT rights of way in Bastrop and Robertson County. So what we will do now is AgriLife will continue to monitor these sites after these fences have been erected and hopefully they’ll see a decrease in mortality rates. We are currently finishing up those final field test sites and probably just weeks away from starting phase two.
Bernie Fette (11:51):
After phase two, how would you describe the ideal end result for the project you’re doing?
Jett McFalls (11:57):
The goal of this is to identify which of these fences work the best. And we’re already seeing some differences and some are working better than others in different ways. When we’ve done product evaluations in the past, it’s identified the successful products. And it’s also caused the lesser-performing products to develop into a better product.
Bernie Fette (12:17):
As you’ve described that the primary reason that you’re doing this work with your partners over at Texas A&M AgriLife is all about avoiding situations where road construction projects get delayed and unnecessary costs get added because of unintended circumstances related to the Endangered Species Act.
Jett McFalls (12:38):
Bernie Fette (12:39):
Let’s talk just a little bit about your colleague Kristina Chyn at AgriLife.
Jett McFalls (12:44):
Bernie Fette (12:44):
Because she has that ecological background and knowing about how these species keep nature in proper balance.
Jett McFalls (12:54):
Oh yes. Kristina’s a post doc researcher at Texas A&M and she’s been managing the project from the College of AgriLife side. Her expertise is in toads and reptiles. And so her knowledge is invaluable to our research team.
Bernie Fette (13:09):
And if I understand, right, some of her work is specific to what we, and she described as wildlife roadway interactions, or roadkill.
Jett McFalls (13:19):
Bernie Fette (13:20):
Okay. So building this habitat is a little bit new for your team, but roadway, research related to wildlife is not something that’s new. Can you tell us a little bit about the work that you’ve done with the pelicans and the ocelots, et cetera?
Jett McFalls (13:35):
Sure. Dr. Andrew Burt led a study here to determine why there was such a large number of wildlife vehicle interactions down in south Texas, specifically the Brown Pelican. It was a phenomenon that was pretty unusual. There was a situation where these large pelicans were having trouble when the weather was a certain condition that they could not fly over a certain roadway. Of course, this created safety issues for drivers and other traffic hazards. We’ve done some other work with wildlife crossings, specifically ocelots in south Texas. We’ve tried to reduce wildlife vehicle interactions and tried to look for ways wildlife can cross under and over roadways. We’ve also done some work and currently doing some work again with Texas A&M AgriLife on Monarch Butterflies and other pollinators. Uh, we’ve worked to identify methods to try to increase pollinator habitat along TxDOT rights of ways.
Bernie Fette (14:24):
That sounds like an episode all by itself.
Jett McFalls (14:27):
To be honest with you, out of all this stuff we’ve talked about, the Monarch thing is gonna grow really fast. Y’all will be hearing a lot more about that. I mean, that’s fixing to be big. That’s coming down way at the top.
Bernie Fette (14:36):
And why is that? Can you help us understand that real briefly?
Jett McFalls (14:40):
You know, the Monarch is very important to our food chain. I mean, if we didn’t have those guys — I mean, Bernie, you could do a whole thing on the importance of Monarchs — but there’s been a, a major decline in their habitat, just like those other species. And so, uh, I dunno if you’re familiar with the Monarch migration that goes from Mexico up to Canada and back every year and it follows, what’s called the Monarch Highway, which follows Interstate 35 straight up north and back down south through the United States, we’ve identified some travel funnels — what they collect in and travel in. That journey is really an amazing journey. But what we’re trying to do is look at ways since TxDOT has so much right of way, it’s a great opportunity to use those rights of way to create pollinator habitat, to help them make that journey.
Bernie Fette (15:27):
And therein lies the transportation connection.
Jett McFalls (15:29):
Exactly. I don’t have all the details right now, but there’s a federal mandate from back when Obama was president that all state DOTs will get busy on identifying ways to improve uh, I keep saying Monarch, but it’s all pollinator habitat on their rights of way.
Bernie Fette (15:46):
What is it that helps you stay motivated? What helps you keep showing up to work every day?
Jett McFalls (15:53):
Interesting variety of projects that we’re able to work on. The people I get to work with, it’s just been a great ride.
Bernie Fette (16:01):
Jett McFalls, assistant research scientist at TTI. And, now, snake and toad habitat specialist. I think that would fit on a business card. Wouldn’t it, Jett?
Jett McFalls (16:13):
I’m thinking about it right now.
Bernie Fette (16:15):
Okay. Fascinating work that you’re doing. Thanks again for telling us about it.
Jett McFalls (16:19):
Thanks for allowing us to do this.
Bernie Fette (16:22):
The needs of the traveling public and those of the animal kingdom do not always align with each other, but that doesn’t mean the two populations can’t coexist in a healthy way. With a little extra focus and the right tools, road builders can help to ensure that animal habitats retain the natural balance they need to thrive. And when creatures in question are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, that approach is good not only for the creatures; it’s good for keeping road projects on schedule, too. Thanks for listening. We hope you’ll join us for our next episode, when we visit with Alice Grossman, leader of TTI’s Clean Transportation Collaborative, which aspires to support a transition to low-emission transportation systems. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.