A deer walks across the road in Virginia

Wild Virginia’s Lifesaving Conservation Work

How this Charlottesville-based nonprofit is making roadways safer—for humans and wildlife alike.

Virginia has one of the highest rates of deer-vehicle collisions of any state in the U.S. In fact, the Virginia Department of Transportation reported a whopping 61,000 collisions in 2016 alone. That’s a massive problem. After all, vehicle collisions aren’t just deadly for deer. They frequently total cars and injure drivers, and they cost the state, insurance agencies, and individuals millions of dollars per year. 

The issue, explains Courtney Hayes—the habitat connectivity director for Charlottesville-based nonprofit Wild Virginia—is habitat fragmentation. 

Wildlife habitat fragmentation is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: the division of habitats into lots of little chunks. At first blush, it might not sound like that big of a deal. After all, the average white-tailed deer only needs about 500 acres of land to roam happily for most of the year. Other kinds of wildlife—like foxes, salamanders, or raccoons—need even less. So, in theory, a few separate 500-acre chunks of forest should be more than adequate to support a wildlife population, right?

Not quite, says Hayes. 

“During the mating season,” she explains, “animals have to be able to travel outside of their normal range to find genetically diverse mates.” When a forest is carved up by roads, walls, or other human developments, wild animals remain stuck in their little pockets of green space, forced to interbreed. That can weaken a wildlife population, making it less resilient against disease and other threats. “The more we cut them off from each other, the more susceptible they’ll be to our changing climate,” Hayes says.

The other issue is that wildlife naturally try to escape their fragments, crossing roads in their search for mates. In fact, white-tailed deer expand their territory to more than 800 acres during the rut, or the fall mating season. That increased range is one of the reasons that fall usually coincides with spikes in deadly vehicle collisions. 

Courtney Hayes out in the field Photo: Wild Virginia

Fortunately, Hayes says there are easy ways to make Virginia safer for both wildlife and people. To that end, Wild Virginia is currently working on all numerous projects to connect habitats and protect wildlife. Think: roadside fencing, underground tunnels, and signage to help wildlife cross roads safely.  

Of course, getting animals across the road is only part of the solution. The more critical task is stopping habitat fragmentation altogether. Fortunately, that’s where Wild Virginia excels. 

Founded in 1996 to fight deforestation in the western part of the state, Wild Virginia’s mission has always been about preserving wild places for the benefit of animals and human visitors alike. It’s one of the few conservation nonprofits in the country that employs a full-time habitat connectivity expert, Hayes says. And it works tirelessly to connect local residents to nature.

“We lead a lot of hikes and we do outreach events like [taking volunteers out to go] monarch tagging at the end of September,” Hayes explains. (Monarch butterflies were designated an endangered species earlier this year.) 

Wild Virginia is also deeply involved in the fight to stop pipeline development, in educating Virginia voters about conservation issues, and in advocating for water quality in the state. Most recently, the nonprofit has partnered with Public Lands to help expand its educational mission. 

“Public Lands focuses so much on getting people outdoors and on getting them feeling invested in the protection of outdoor areas,” Hayes explains. “In that sense, we have a shared vision. This partnership helps us elevate our message.” 

As part of the partnership, Wild Virginia will also receive support from the Public Lands Fund. This grant funding is part of the Fund’s 30x30 grant program in collaboration with Patagonia and Public Lands, designed to support conservation nonprofits working to help the country reach its 30x30 conservation goals.

To help Public Lands, Wild Virginia and the Public Lands Fund hit those goals, visit Wild Virginia and follow their efforts. Join an upcoming volunteer day, sign a petition, and learn more about the issues near you.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.