By KARL PUCKETT | Great Falls Tribune

LINCOLN, Mont. (AP) — Mike Livergood walked underneath Montana Highway 200, protected in a 10-foot-tall, 20-foot-wide tunnel, as trucks and cars rumbled overhead doing 70 mph.

He wasn't the first to take this route.

“You can see deer tracks right here,” Livergood, a civil engineer with the Montana Department of Transportation, said, pointing to the ground.

Keeping animals and motorists safe is the aim of two wildlife underpasses that were incorporated into a $10.6 million reconstruction of a 7.2-mile stretch of Highway 200 just east of here, at a cost of $700,000.

The high-traffic highway runs through the heart of a bustling wildlife corridor, prompting the extra spending so wildlife can cross under rather than across the highway.

“Basically, any wildlife in the state is out there, so we hope to get `em using these underpasses and keep `em off the road,” said Paul Sturm, a biologist for the Montana Department of Transportation's Great Falls District.

Grizzly bears are a threatened species, which made underpasses logical, he said.

But elk, deer, moose, black bear and other wildlife are “everywhere,” and the DOT is trying to be good environmental stewards with the work while making the highway safer for motorists, Sturm said.

“There's not a single area they're crossing any more than the other,” he said of how thick wildlife is in the construction zone.

Based on anecdotal evidence and animal tracks, early results are promising, DOT officials said.

“We saw a lot deer track in the one west of Alice Creek,” Sturm said.

Eventually, cameras will be installed to verify how much wildlife are using the tunnels and avoiding a perilous walk across the highway.

The camera results could lead to modifications.

In late 2009, when the project was being designed, DOT officials met with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials about wildlife concerns, Sturm said.

“Done properly, we should be able to maintain wildlife connectivity and corridor movement, while also meeting the DOT mission of highway safety,” said Randy Arnold, FWP's Region 2 supervisor.

Riparian river bottoms are close to the highway, making the stretch active with wildlife movement, he said. The highway cuts through Helena National Forest, and it's not far from the Scapegoat Wilderness.

Currently, animals crossing the highway are on a potential collision course with cars and trucks.

In 2014, average daily traffic was 2,314 vehicles, up from 2,060 in 2010, according to the DOT. Daily traffic is expected to grow to 3,718 by 2034, only increasing concerns about collisions between cars and critters.

Work is occurring about halfway between Great Falls and Missoula.

“This is one of the hazards of living in this country,” Louie Bouma, owner of Bouma Post Yards, which is located along the highway, said of motorists striking animals. “It's a human safety issue.”

Wildlife congregate in willow bottoms near the highway, he said.

“It's wildlife haven,” Bouma said. “Elk, deer both drop their calves down in there in the spring.”

He estimates that vehicles hit eight to 10 elk a year along a mile-and-a-half stretch beginning at his business. Bouma says he hates to see wildlife killed in collisions, but also notes that the accidents hurt people, too.

Two underpasses were constructed at a cost of $350,000 each.

The work involved building up the road and putting the underpass structures underneath the highway, Livergood said.

One is east of Aspen Road campground. A number of elk were struck at that location in 2012, Sturm said.

A second structure is located between Hardscrabble and Alice creeks.

To encourage the animals to use the safe crossings, 5.4 miles of 8-foot-high fencing _ 2.7 miles on each side of the highway _ has been erected.

“They come up to the fence,” Livergood explained at one of the underpasses one day last week. “The object is to have them follow that fence to here, and funnel through here and get to the other side of the road.”

Bouma supports the project, but said he'd like to see some improvements to make the crossing system even better for animals and people. At this point, FWP and DOT seem open to suggestions, he said.

“The effectiveness of fencing is not 100 percent,” Bouma said. “Never has been, never will be. However, with some slight modifications, the effectiveness can be increased substantially.”

Underpasses and overpasses and fencing have been used on U.S. Highway 93 north and south of Missoula to deter collisions between animals and vehicles, Sturm said.

“It's definitely unique to the area,” Sturm said of the Lincoln project.

Livergood said construction workers see elk, moose and deer regularly.

One worker captured a deer on video using a “jump out.”

Eight jump outs also were installed as part of the wildlife friendly project. Jump outs are piles of dirt inside the fences where trapped animals can climb and jump out. As he spoke, deer grazed in the willows on the other side of the fence.

Fencing also has been constructed at two existing bridges that cross creeks, and DOT officials hope the fencing constructed near those two sites funnels wildlife to those natural crossings as well.

“There's elk using it already, which is neat,” Bouma said of the Alice Creek bridge crossing.

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Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com