With the fall migration season coming to an end, one of the worst times of the year for animal-vehicle collisions is starting to wind down.
Thanks to a new citizen science app, pronghorn on the Northern Sagebrush Steppe, which includes lands in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and over the U.S. border into Montana, will eventually be able to navigate their own migration routes a little easier.
Developed by the Miistakis Institute with support from a grant from the World Wildlife Fund Canada, the Pronghorn Xing app allows passengers and drivers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and into Montana to report wildlife they spot on their trip — similar to traffic apps like Waze, where users provide real-time reports on traffic conditions. And while users can report sightings of mule deer, white-tailed deer, and elk as well, pronghorn are the focus.
Pronghorn, often called prairie antelope (although they’re actually more closely related to giraffes) move back and forth between the northern end of their range to less snowy areas further south in the spring and fall.
The problem? Pronghorn migration routes aren’t exactly seamless — they’re broken up by highways and other human infrastructure. Large groups of pronghorn can often get stuck trying to cross highways, either by heavy traffic or by fences that they’re unable to squeeze under. (Pronghorn, unlike deer, won’t jump fences.)
Groups of pronghorn can sometimes be stuck for days waiting to cross a busy highway or piled up at a fence. Combine a large group of stranded pronghorn with a sudden snowfall or quick freeze, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
And that’s where Pronghorn Xing comes in.
“An app like this allows us to gather a data set about where the ‘pinch points’ are in pronghorn seasonal migration, where those routes are being disrupted by a fence or highway or both,” explains wildlife biologist Megan Jensen, the local project coordinator for Pronghorn Xing. “We couldn’t do this without our volunteers — engaging citizen scientists allows us to collect more data than we would be able to on our own.”
One of the most challenging spots in Pronghorn Xing’s study area is along Highway 1 in Alberta, says Paul Jones, a senior biologist with the Alberta Conservation Authority.
“There are four lanes of traffic there, both sides are fenced, and the pronghorn have to cross a railway track once they’ve gotten over the highway,” he explains. “The app will allow us to see how they’re interacting with traffic and the roads, and it’s a great way to make connections between people, wildlife and the environment.”
So far, 280 people have downloaded the app, which launched in September 2017. 83 people have submitted a total of 992 sightings, 525 of which were pronghorn. And while Pronghorn Xing’s study area currently includes areas in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Montana, there is the potential to extend the app along the pronghorn’s entire range, talks are underway with biologists in Arizona, Texas and Colorado.
With the data collected, researchers can then recommend ways to mitigate the situation, whether it’s with wildlife-friendly fencing, wildlife crossings or other infrastructure improvements — keeping both the pronghorn and drivers safe from collisions.
“We’re making these areas safe for everyone, not just animals,” says Jensen. “Pronghorn are such an iconic prairie species — it’s a shame to see them struggle so much simply to cross a road. I’m hopeful that with the help of our volunteers using Pronghorn Xing, we’ll have data that we’ll be able to use to help develop solutions.”