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November 28, 2023Episode 71. Can Imperiled Creatures Survive and Thrive amid Widespread Roadway Construction?
FEATURING: Andrew Birt
The well-being of creatures protected under the Endangered Species Act is a high priority for transportation agencies. That’s good for the critters, and for agency operations as well.
About Our Guest
Associate Research Scientist
Andrew Birt is an Associate Research Scientist and has worked for TTI for 10 years. He is an ecologist by training and has been involved in several projects involving wildlife and transportation issues as well as projects focusing on air quality, hydrology, agriculture, and transportation resilience.
Bernie Fette (00:16):
Hey everyone. Welcome to Thinking Transportation conversations about how we get ourselves and the stuff we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The annual mating season for White-tailed Deer typically runs from October through December, and it’s during that time that we’re more likely to cross paths with them if we’re driving at night. But deer aren’t the only living things at risk of being hit by cars and trucks. Some of those creatures are protected under the Endangered Species Act, which was passed into law 50 years ago. That makes their preservation a high priority for the agencies that build and operate highways. Andrew Birt is an associate research scientist at TTI and an expert in this field — one that represents a growing segment of TTIs work. Welcome Andrew, and thanks for sharing your time with us.
Andrew Birt (01:19):
Good morning. Glad to be here.
Bernie Fette (01:22):
So, it seems to me in the time that I’ve been at TTI, that the impact of transportation on our natural environment has been an expanding part of the agency’s research portfolio. Why is that? Has there been some kind of a shift or an evolution of sorts with regard to how society looks at that issue?
Andrew Birt (01:43):
Well, I think so. I think as societies developed, there’s a greater emphasis on people wanting to protect the natural environment. People having ethical concerns over the natural environment. And when I say the natural environment, you know, I don’t mean just the wildest places in the country, not just the national parks. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative>. But I think also there’s an understanding that people are going to enjoy their lives. They need great environments to work and to recreate. And I think protecting those environments, developing those environments and protecting them are important to modern societies.
Bernie Fette (02:20):
When you mentioned protection, I wonder if you could touch just a little bit on how the work that you’re talking about ties to the Endangered Species Act, which incidentally has been around for almost exactly 50 years.
Andrew Birt (02:33):
Yeah, I think 1973, what the Endangered Species Act does is it gives the United States, uh, Fish and Wildlife Service the ability to create a list of species that warrant special protection. So that’s when we say the species has been listed, it’s been put on that list, and from there on it warrants special protection. And so that whole process of putting a species on a protected list is actually pretty transparent, very thorough, very considered based upon the sensitivity of that species to human disturbances or other disturbances. And then the other part of the Act is that once a species is on that list, there are a number of more straightforward things that agencies must do or people must do to make sure that those species are not adversely affected by development or by other human activities.
Bernie Fette (03:32):
And I know that we’ll get into more of a discussion about some of those examples of those endangered species in just a few minutes. But before we do, I was hoping I could make just a sort of a seasonal reference that people might understand. We are now nearing the end of another deer mating season in Texas, which is generally speaking October through December. And that’s when White-tailed Deer are much more active and moving about quite a lot during these months. And that means that people are more likely to encounter them on the roads at night. Can you tell us a little bit about what you know on that topic?
Andrew Birt (04:11):
Well, I’m by no means a deer expert, but I understand the problem during the mating season or the rutting season that the deer lose some of their inhibitions. They become more active as they move around the landscape and can often find themselves crossing roads more unexpectedly than normal. So of course, that brings a lot of conflict with drivers. So there’s some sources that say that the, uh, 5,000 vehicle animal crashes occurring annually on Texas highways and the scale of the deer crossing issue. Wow. On average, 17 people are killed through those interactions. But I’d also remember that there’s gonna be a bunch of interactions that aren’t reported and a bunch of scares, you know? Right. I’ve been driving down the road before on the way out to Big Bend and had flashes of deer eyes in the headlights. And it is a bit scary. Uhhuh <affirmative>, you feel it a bit vulnerable, especially in a small vehicle.
Bernie Fette (05:08):
Yeah. Okay. Your work, the work that you and your colleagues do in this area spans a number of different applications and species. Let’s talk first, if we could, about the work that you and your colleagues have done with Brown Pelicans in South Texas along the Gulf Coast. The Brown Pelican is, I think, a listed species. Is that right?
Andrew Birt (05:31):
It is not. It’s an interesting one because it was a listed species.
Bernie Fette (05:37):
But no longer. So this is one of the success stories where a species used to be on the list of endangered species, but no longer?
Andrew Birt (05:45):
Bernie Fette (05:47):
And I was getting ready for our conversation today and reading some of the research that you’ve done during the time when this was more of a problem. There were as many as 150 crash landings of these pelicans in a single day in one location. Is that right?
Andrew Birt (06:03):
Bernie Fette (06:04):
What was causing that?
Andrew Birt (06:06):
So during cold fronts down in South Texas, which don’t happen amazingly frequently, but you know, there’s maybe 10 cold fronts a year. And basically what happens in this area of South Texas is the wind changes direction starts blowing from the north, start getting cold weather, often accompanied by rain or drizzle. And the problem is that pelicans are, are attempting to cross State Highway 48 in the region, and that’s a highway that links Brownsville with Port Isabel. As they attempt to cross the road, they encounter these very strong winds and that causes them to crash land on the road surface. They kind of get stuck on the road surface ’cause it’s, you know, they’re quite a big bird. It’s difficult for them to take off. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> in swirling wind, once they’re on the road, they’re very vulnerable to passing motorists. It’s 75 mile an hour section of the roadway. Oh, wow. Uh, it’s a gray day. They’re gray birds on a gray road. They’re very difficult to see. And even if you did, they’re difficult to avoid at that speed. So yeah, it’s actually a pretty disturbing sight to watch it.
Bernie Fette (07:13):
So it’s treacherous for the birds, but treacherous for drivers as well. Right.
Andrew Birt (07:17):
Well, it’s treacherous for drivers. There’s always a big risk that drivers are gonna see a bird late and swerve into another lane, hit another driver, hit somebody on the side of the road,
Bernie Fette (07:31):
And that somebody on the side of the road could be someone who’s gotten out of their car to try and help the birds.
Andrew Birt (07:37):
Right. Well, it’s a bit more than that because these events come with cold fronts. Mm-Hmm. So that they’re concentrated in time and they’re forecastable. Ah. So the local folks down there have organized themselves to respond to these events and be on the roadside. And they do a great job of saving birds that are downed in the road. If, if they weren’t there, the numbers that get killed are much higher.
Bernie Fette (08:01):
Andrew Birt (08:01):
But they’re there, depending on how many they are, they’re organized themselves along the side of the road. They’ve started wearing high visibility clothes. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> most of the time. But literally they will dash onto the road, try and wrangle a pelican that’s flapping around with its big beak and try and pull it off the road.
Bernie Fette (08:19):
These are frightened birds that don’t necessarily understand that someone’s trying to help them, so they’re possibly behaving even more erratically.
Andrew Birt (08:27):
Yeah. Society’s a a lot, a lot less tolerant of just killing animals on the road. And there’s a bunch of reasons for that, but it’s traumatic for people to run over an animal. It’s not a nice thing to happen to anybody, whether they’re a driver or whether they’re watching it. So a lot of research is kind of precipitated by the Endangered Species Act. But I think moving forward, uh, you know, I, I think there’s gonna be lots more issues just based upon people wanting to make sure that we’re not unnecessarily harming any animals on the roadway or any plants as a result of transportation activity. Mm-Hmm,
Bernie Fette (09:05):
<affirmative> Okay. About the research on this particular example, can you describe briefly what you guys did to address the problem to help the pelicans?
Andrew Birt (09:16):
Yeah. We’ve done two main strands of research, and the first research that we did was to try and figure out why the pelicans were crash landing on the road. So we actually built scale models of the roadway. It’s a bit of an elevated roadway on very flat land and, and it completely borders a lagoon that the pelicans are actually flying into to roost every night.
Bernie Fette (09:41):
Andrew Birt (09:42):
So we did some initial research, ’cause the hunch was that it was the profile of the road and its concrete traffic barriers that were causing some difficult airflow conditions above the roadway that the pelicans were flying into. And that was what was causing them to kind of stall in flight and land on the road. So based upon that initial research, which was to create these scale models and put them in the Texas A&M wind tunnel, and we also did computational fluid dynamic simulations to do the same sort of thing in a computer and match them up, we confirmed, I think that the profile of the road and its infrastructure were one of the primary causes of the difficulties that pelicans have when they’re crossing 48 during those cold fronts.
Bernie Fette (10:31):
So what was the solution here? Modifications to the roadway or the bridge?
Andrew Birt (10:37):
Well, the modification that was implemented was to replace the outer concrete traffic barrier, which was a solid concrete barrier. So created a big bluff like a wall, you know. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So basically a 32 inch tall wall and replace that with a railing type barrier that we hoped would let some of the air flow through and result in better air conditions over the row surface.
Bernie Fette (11:01):
And what was the result?
Andrew Birt (11:03):
The result was that it made a difference. But unfortunately the difference was that it actually just changed the lanes in which the pelicans were crash landing into. So it may have reduced mortality or reduced crash landings overall. And that, that’s something that’s very difficult to determine because there’s lots of interacting factors. You know, there’s the change in the pelican population from year to year. There’s the difference in the severity of cold fronts to consider. And it would take a lot of data to really figure out how much benefit is had on the total numbers of downed birds.
Bernie Fette (11:48):
You said that there were two strands of research. I think you’ve just covered the first, what did the second involve?
Andrew Birt (11:54):
Yeah, the second one was a lot more proactive. Again, it was research sponsored by TxDOT and the environmental people there understood that perhaps the issue of the pelicans crash landing on 48, perhaps there needs to be a consideration beyond just the roadway. So we did a study and we actually put GPS devices on pelicans and tracked them for a year. So tiny little solar-powered GPS device devices. So the idea there was to try and understand how to use the local environment to find out where their more prominent roosting sites were. And also to get a grip on how the pelican population changes in the area over a season. And again, you know, you talked about the contributing factors of that problem. And one of those is that there’s a lot of pelicans that move through that area seasonally. ’cause the pelicans migrate from the summer ranges mostly up in the Mississippi delta. And they migrate all the way down the Gulf Coast to Mexico to the warmer clines. Many of them stay in that region and will become winter residents in that region. But a lot of them are just passing through. And, you know, right at when those cold fronts begin in the fall, there’s a whole load of pelicans in the region that are looking for safe roost sites every now. And, and one of those safe roost sites is just across 48 in the Bahai Grande wetlands.
Bernie Fette (13:23):
So it sounds like, from what I’m hearing, that there have been some improvements for the pelicans, but this is still a, a work in progress in terms of really addressing the problem.
Andrew Birt (13:34):
Yeah, I, I think it’s definitely a work in progress. There’s an interesting story behind that wetland, and that is that not many years ago it was just a big salt bowl. Hmm. It had been degraded, it had no hydraulic connections to the Gulf of Mexico. And so it, it was a very degraded wetland, far removed from how it would’ve been originally and how it is now. And what happened was through a, a series of events that folks can research, a local shrimper decided he was gonna restore it. And he cut a channel to connect it to the Brownsville ship channel, which connects it to the Gulf of Mexico. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And in doing so, that wetland or the dryland as it was then began to rejuvenate. And then Fish and Wildlife Service got a hold of this and thought that it would be a good idea to do a formal restoration, which they did. So now what essentially happened was a, a new pelican habitat was roosting site habitat was created right next to State Highway 48 and Text R. And still are helping that restoration of that wetland. It, the channel’s been widened to allow even more connectivity. So it is an interesting issue. The problem really stems from the configuration of the roadway and the roadway infrastructure, the creation of a new wetland in an area that’s becoming more developed. And not only that, but the recovery of the Brown Pelican population. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. Because when all of this was happening in the beginning and people were thinking about it, the Brown Pelican was still on the listed list and has now recovered to its former glory.
Bernie Fette (15:22):
So considerable progress, but still certainly some work remains to be done. Yeah. You mentioned Ocelots a few minutes ago. Let’s talk a little about that. Another endangered species, a member of the cat family, at least in photos, looks a bit like a leopard or a jaguar, but smaller, generally found in South Texas. So how did the ocelots and transportation builders come into conflict originally? What are the threats there?
Andrew Birt (15:52):
So, as you said, you know, the ocelot is a medium sized spotted cat. And in Texas we have very localized and sensitive or endangered populations. The ocelots normally found throughout Central America and, and South America. And a lot of those populations aren’t particularly sensitive, aren’t particularly threatened. But in Texas, we just have these remnant populations in the South Texas and they’re highly endangered. So according to the Endangered Species Act, a lot of work has to go in to make sure that there’s no issues, there’s no mortality, no ocelot mortality on roads that cross their habitat or border their habitat.
Bernie Fette (16:39):
So tell us about that work in the context of roadway construction. What was the problem and what was the research that you and your colleagues did to better understand that problem?
Andrew Birt (16:50):
Well, there’s a busy road down there called State Highway 100, and that intersects what is thought to be ocelot habitat. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, there’s a couple of preserves down there that are there specifically for ocelots that have been created specifically for the protection of ocelots. But obviously you can’t stop a wild animal wandering outside of preserves. So those preserves tend to be somewhat fragmented. And ocelots have been found dead on state highway 100. So TxDOT have had to do a lot of work to try and protect those animals that are moving through that fragmented habitat. And one thing that they’ve done, and that is pretty amazing to see, is build underpasses like very large culverts under the state highway for the specific purpose of enabling ocelots and other animals to cross.
Bernie Fette (17:42):
So that gives the ocelots somewhere to find safe passage. How do they know?
Andrew Birt (17:49):
Well, that’s the added bit of that TxDOT project is to really encourage and ensure that those underpasses are used. They actually fenced off a huge corridor of state Highway 100. So imagine just a high fence lining each side of the road. And the thinking was there that any ocelot or any animal actually that wants to cross will therefore almost be forced to use one of these wildlife crossings and will learn how to use them more effectively in the future.
Bernie Fette (18:25):
So it almost sounds like they have created a funnel of sorts.
Andrew Birt (18:30):
Yeah. That’s the idea.
Bernie Fette (18:32):
So where are we now with the ocelots? You’ve done some research?
Andrew Birt (18:37):
Yeah, so the research that we did, it was interesting. And as I say, they fenced that corridor. One of the issues that they had when they fenced that corridor in the hope of funneling, as you said, the ocelots through these, well-designed underpasses was in some places they had to provide openings for private property or other properties through the fence, you know, so they had to provide openings where driveways previously existed. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And of course that kind of defeats the purpose of a funnel if the animals can get through those openings and aren’t encouraged to go through the crossings. What TxDOT were looking for were ways of protecting those openings to ensure that any animal, or not just an ocelot, but any animal, couldn’t get through those openings and into that corridor, that fence corridor. One of the products that we investigated was something called electrocrete, which if you can believe it is a electrified concrete that some people use instead of a cattle guard. And basically you lay that into the road like a, just a strip into the concrete, and if any animal tries to walk over it, it gets a zap and it gets turned back. So we just investigated likely cost-effectiveness of using electrocrete to protect those openings. As with all of these environmental issues, there needs to be a large amount of monitoring that occurs so that we can be confident that solutions work. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> so that the TxDOT engineers can be confident that solutions work, but also so that it gives us a, a leg up when we try to design the solution for the next problem. ’cause the next problem might not be ocelots, it might be black bears or something else. And every problem is unique. And the more that you know about past research into these issues, the more chance you have of extending those solutions to other species, modifying them successfully for other species or for other issues.
Bernie Fette (20:35):
We’ve talked a little bit about some of the bigger animals, the deer, ocelots, you even in passing mentioned black bears, which may be something that needs to be looked at in the future. Let’s talk a little about some smaller creatures that I know that TTI has had some involvement with in research. Houston toads and the Louisiana pine snake. What was the problem with the challenge?
Andrew Birt (21:02):
Yeah, the Houston toad is a endangered species, protected species. Okay. It’s got a pretty limited range in Texas. One of the issues was that if construction needs to be done within that range or on the edge of that range, there’s a risk that Houston toads will get into the construction site and be killed. And that’s something that the Endangered Species Act protects against.
Bernie Fette (21:31):
And the same thing with the snakes.
Andrew Birt (21:33):
Yes. And the snakes were introduced. The Houston toads were the immediate problem for that research. And the snakes were introduced as a, again, we talked a little bit earlier about how one of the challenges of this sort of environmental research is that every problem’s different because of the different species and Mm-Hmm. Snakes obviously move a lot more differently than Houston toads. So the snakes are introduced to provide possible mitigation solutions for the future.
Bernie Fette (22:00):
And the important issue here is that protecting those creatures, among other reasons, helps to just keep the ecosystem in balance. Correct.
Andrew Birt (22:09):
Yeah. The Houston toad has a very restricted range and it’s protected. So again, modern society, the ethics of modern society suggests that it’s important to keep these species around in our environments, you know, to preserve them.
Bernie Fette (22:28):
So you’ve just described the problem for us involving these two particular species with regard to road building. Can you address the research briefly just to help us see what direction this project took?
Andrew Birt (22:42):
So this research was conducted by the Sediment and Erosion Control lab at TTI. The lab provided a great venue to do this research because what TxDOT are looking for is exclusion barriers that they can put around the construction site that are going to do the best that we can to keep the toads or the snakes or whatever critters they may be out of the construction site. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, uh, so the research focused on taking existing devices that were originally designed for erosion control. Yes. That would have to be put in anyway. And some newer devices that were developed for the purpose of keeping animals out and seeing if testing those different products and seeing if the sack lab could come up with a cost effective solution for keeping those toads out.
Bernie Fette (23:31):
And as I understand it, the research that was conducted didn’t actually involve the endangered species themselves, but a couple of species that were similar in their behaviors and movements.
Andrew Birt (23:44):
That’s right. That’s a good point. When we started looking at this research, we knew that you couldn’t use a Houston toad. So we used a Gulf Coast toad instead.
Bernie Fette (23:53):
And the same with the snake. I think you used, uh, corn snakes in place of the endangered. Yeah. Yeah. So the barriers that you’re talking about, I think people, if they’ve driven past any sort of construction zone, they’ve probably seen these, they’re slightly, oh, I don’t know, maybe two feet high or so, this colored plastic that’s surrounding a site. Is that the kind of barriers that they started with?
Andrew Birt (24:15):
Yeah. And there was a variety that they tested.
Bernie Fette (24:17):
Right. And what you had to do was figure out not only what would keep the species out of those zones, but some way that if they were originally trapped in there, that they would be able to find a way out. Right.
Andrew Birt (24:29):
Yes. Yeah. There was some experiments with jump outs so that once, if something did get out or in it could get out. ’cause one of the problems with a barrier, just like that ocelot situation earlier, is that, uh, if animals do penetrate the barrier, then they’re kind of stuck. And again, this was Jett’s research and Darryl Foster’s research. Right. And as an observer, they did a great job of that research.
Bernie Fette (24:52):
And I should note here that if anyone would like to hear more details about this project that Andrew’s been describing conducted by Jett McFalls and his group, they can go to the TTI website and check out Thinking Transportation episode 28, lots more detail on that particular project and that recording. So Monarch butterflies, let’s proceed there. We’re really covering a pretty broad range of species here from those that are on four legs to those that crawl and jump. And now to those that fly, the number of monarch butterflies has dropped by, as I understand it, something like 80 percent over the past 20 years. Why Andrew, is that a concern in general? And why is it a concern for transportation agencies?
Andrew Birt (25:39):
The monarchs is a really interesting case for endangered species because monarchs are still pretty ubiquitous. You know, it’s not like, it’s not like they’re rare, like an ocelot you, you know, I, a couple of weeks ago out on my lawn, and you could see five or 10 monarchs every hour passing through. And of course, their range is all over eastern portion of Texas. So a really challenging problem if they become listed as an endangered species, a challenging problem for TxDOT because they’ve got to manage roadways.
Bernie Fette (26:11):
Right. We’ve all heard of herding cats. I can only imagine how challenging it would be to herd butterflies. Right, right. Yeah. So tell us, what was the problem in this particular case? Was this another case of motor vehicles just striking too many monarch butterflies because the butterflies’ flight patterns were in conflict with roadway patterns?
Andrew Birt (26:36):
Well, people familiar with monarch butterflies and their lifestyle know that they overwinter in central Mexico in high altitude forests, and they congregate in huge masses in a very limited area. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, they’re, they’re overwintering, you know, in very cold, dry environments so that they have a maximum chance of surviving over the winter. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And then what happens in the spring is that those overwinterers start migrating Northwoods into the U.S. and as they do, they start laying eggs and seeding the next generation of monarchs. So the northward migration happens every year where monarchs move through Mexico, through Texas, you know, the southern states as they go, they’re laying eggs using roadside resources, a whole load of different environmental resources. And as that happens, the population increases hugely within the season. And then they move to the northern states where they summer increase the population size again, the, the seasonal change in population.
Andrew Birt (27:42):
And then finally in fall, they make one big migration southwards towards those overwintering sites. So when they make that southern migration, and when they make that northern migration, there’s a couple of issues that are related to transportation for the southern migration, they tend to fly along fairly consistent flight paths. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And some of those are inevitably gonna cross roads. And when they cross roads as the issue of traffic mortality. And if you think about, if you think about that life cycle, those butterflies that have gotten that far and avoided being killed and are very, very close to their overwintering site, are really very valuable to the whole population. And, and the regularity of this migration
Bernie Fette (28:29):
Valuable in what sense?
Andrew Birt (28:31):
In the sense that they’re the ones that are gonna initiate that northward migration the following year,
Bernie Fette (28:38):
And then produce that next generation
Andrew Birt (28:40):
And produce that next generation. Yeah.
Bernie Fette (28:42):
I see. Okay.
Andrew Birt (28:43):
And you know, it’s a butterfly, so there’s lots of natural mortality. There’s butterflies that get blown off course, there’s butterflies that get eaten by predators. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. But during that northward migration, the issue for transportation or for other land managers, the conservation issue is about providing enough resources that they can lay their eggs and increase their populations sufficiently that they can make that, that huge population growth that’s important to the sustainability of the population.
Bernie Fette (29:15):
Real briefly, Andrew, tell us why monarch butterflies are important. Why is so much effort to protect them?
Andrew Birt (29:24):
It’s a really interesting endangered species case. Society is becoming increasingly aware of the need to protect all species. But monarchs also from a societal point of view, monarchs also are part of this pollinator class of species that helps to make sure that ecosystems are healthy by pollinating different plants, including agricultural plants that are important to humans. So,
Bernie Fette (29:50):
So they’re important to us because they’re responsible in part for feeding us.
Andrew Birt (29:54):
Yes. Everything traces back to us. And, you know, they’re in integral part of the ecosystem. They’re part of what makes the whole thing tick. So it’s important to conserve them.
Bernie Fette (30:05):
So is this another case where there had to be some barriers modeled to help the butterflies in their journeys? What exactly was the product of the research here?
Andrew Birt (30:15):
Well, the initial research was conducted by TTI and partnering with Texas A&M AgriLife. And the initial research was really to understand the extent of the mortality and to identify mortality hotspots to kind of make projections about how much mortality there was and how big a cause of mortality to the whole population that represented from vehicle collisions. So that was the original research. And then just about last year, that actually triggered a implementation project from TxDOT, where one of the potential mitigation solutions was to build nets or kinda walls with netting that would try to encourage monarchs to fly higher over the roadway and therefore protect them from vehicle collisions.
Bernie Fette (31:04):
So it sounds like we have another example of progress being made, but work remaining to be done.
Andrew Birt (31:10):
Yeah. With many of these problems that, you know, the long-term problems and long-term monitoring is needed to get a good handle on what’s effective and what’s not effective. If you think about the pelican population and the monarch population, you know, the pelican population, they’re not Texas pelicans, they’re pelicans that exist all the way along the Gulf Coast. Right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So, okay. The potential for things happening to them elsewhere is, is large. But with the monarchs too, the reason why the populations have declined so much is a decline in that overwintering land, those overwintering areas. So habitat destruction, but also changes in agriculture in the north, which those changes basically have been to eliminate or to introduce farming practices that virtually eliminate their host plants out of corn fields and agricultural crops. So they used to have this big habitat range, and now with the introduction of certain farming methods, so that summer range is contracted. And really now, you know, what TxDOT being encouraged to do is, on the one hand, try and prevent monarch mortality on the roads. ’cause every monarch individual that’s migrating southwards is valuable. But also to try and pick up the responsibility of managing the roadside to provide that habitat for monarchs that has been lost from agricultural lands. Hmm. You know, these are very complex socio-ecological problems there. Right.
Bernie Fette (32:41):
I was, I was just thinking that this is not a simple picture. Right. Everything’s connected. Yeah.
Andrew Birt (32:45):
And you can see the value of the Endangered Species Act, because that’s what they do, is to do that research at the highest level on the populations and make recommendations for other agencies to follow them so that we can’t be too shortsighted about protecting species. And we can think about these linkages. So very valuable.
Bernie Fette (33:05):
And if there’s one thing that’s been becoming more and more clear to me, just in this conversation that you and I have had, Andrew, it’s that when you mention the Endangered Species Act and the efforts that are employed to try and protect different creatures and ensure their survival and their future, there are social reasons, as I think I’ve heard you say, interests in people’s minds and hearts to just preserve the natural environment, just for the sake of preserving that environment, but also a set of reasons that’s very practical that once again, these connections, these links that you talked about with how agricultural practices are impacting conditions for these different species, we need to protect these creatures. Not only because it’s a good thing to do just in terms of society, but it’s also a good thing to do in practical terms because this is how we are fed. This is how our species continues to survive and be vibrant. Is that a fair assessment?
Andrew Birt (34:10):
Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. The summary is that there’s many, many, many reasons to, um, want to protect species and want to protect individuals. And that’s what makes a lot of this environmental research challenging. Every problem is different. It’s motivated by different issues. Every animal is different, every plant is different. The pelican issue, they’re not endangered. The issue is human safety. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> ’cause of the volunteers on the roadway. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, I would argue to some extent, animal welfare. Nobody wants that to happen to pelicans. Nobody wants to be the driver and nobody wants to watch it. The monarch butterflies, as you said, important as pollinators, but important in its own right as a migratory population, which is fairly unique in the world and is also part of our culture. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, there are trees along the full migration path that year after year become monarch roosts at certain times of the year. And, and people watch them and enjoy them. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And there are hundreds of kids who go out and collect monarch eggs on the milkweed and rear them and release them. It’s more than just being animals. It’s part of the culture of the human population.
Bernie Fette (35:25):
It’s a wonderful summary. I was about to ask you to give your elevator speech, and I feel like you just did. So what’s next for you and your team?
Andrew Birt (35:35):
Well, if somebody, somebody had told me 20 years ago that had get the opportunity to work on pelicans and ocelots and monarch butterflies and rangelands, which we haven’t touched upon, I had to kind of amaze myself and I wouldn’t have believed them. So the issues have just been so varied and so interesting. I wouldn’t really like to guess what’s next. But you know, I’m an ecologist by training. I’m not a transportation engineer by training. And you know, ecology is a huge field. Like we’ve already said, most of the transportation infrastructure that we have has been designed for one species and one species only. And that’s the human being. And yet it interacts, has the potential to interact with all of these other varied species from plants to pelicans who would’ve ever thought that, that there’s gonna be an issue with pelicans crossing roads. So I don’t know what the next research is gonna be. What I do know is that at TTI, one of the advantages that we’ve got is that we’ve got experts in all of these fields under one roof. I think transportation and environmental research at at TTI has got a big bright future.
Bernie Fette (36:48):
So it sounds like you may not know exactly what’s next for you and your team, but it sounds like whatever it is, you’re ready for it.
Andrew Birt (36:55):
I’m ready for it.
Bernie Fette (36:56):
Last question. I know you’ve partially answered this already, but I’m gonna ask the question in a different way. What is it more than anything else that motivates you to show up to work every day?
Andrew Birt (37:09):
Oh, I like solving problems. And I’m a trained researcher, so I don’t know much about much until I start researching it. And you know, I’d love to turn up at work because it gives me an opportunity to do that research. I love finding things out, and I love trying to solve problems. And there are no more complex and strange problems to solve than those that involve wildlife, ecology, and transportation. So I think that’s what motivates me.
Bernie Fette (37:39):
And apparently the reason why you said earlier that the research in this area has a very bright future at TTI.
Andrew Birt (37:46):
Bernie Fette (37:46):
We’ve been visiting with Andrew Birt, an associate research scientist at TTI. Andrew, you do have an interesting research experience from day to day, and we’re very grateful that you would take time to share it with us. So thank you very much.
Andrew Birt (38:04):
Thank you for having me.
Bernie Fette (38:08):
The potential for animal vehicle conflict has been a concern for as long as we’ve had roadways. When human population centers expand, our transportation networks invariably disrupt the habitats where animal populations call home. Many of those creatures, whether they walk or crawl or fly, enjoy special consideration under federal law. Ensuring their protection during highway construction and maintenance is a high priority. And maintaining that focus is a good thing, not only for any number of imperiled species, but for society in general as well. Thanks for listening. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe and share this episode, and please join us next time for another conversation about getting ourselves and the stuff we need from point A to point B. 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 joining us. We’ll see you next time.