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Animals See A Silver Lining During Pandemic As Fewer Are Killed On The Road

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The pandemic has meant less time on the road for many Americans. That's led to fewer car accidents in parts of the country and cleaner air. Now new research shows it has also reduced another byproduct of driving - roadkill. NPR's Nathan Rott reports.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: There are about 4 million miles of roads in the U.S. That's enough to drive around the world about 160 times, so you'd want to pack snacks. The not-so-fun part of that, though, is that hundreds of millions of animals are killed crossing those roads every year. One estimate puts the number at 1 billion animals annually - yes, B - billion.

FRASER SHILLING: So it's really a staggering impact for wildlife and nature in general.

ROTT: Fraser Shilling is the director of the Road Ecology Center at UC Davis. As states and cities began to lock down back in March, he and a team of researchers decided to look at what stay-at-home orders meant for traffic and its related impacts. They focused on three states - Idaho, California and Maine. And in all, they found that as traffic declined, so, too, did the number of wildlife and vehicle collisions. In Maine...

SHILLING: The drop in animals being killed on roads was about 46%. So almost half of the animals are not being killed anymore. I mean, that's one way to think about it.

ROTT: In California, they found a 56% decline in the road deaths of mountain lions, a population that is under threat. Tricia Nguyen, an undergraduate and intern at the Road Ecology Center who helped organize the data, says it's kind of a silver lining to everything else that's going on.

TRICIA NGUYEN: I don't want to make light of how terrible the pandemic is, but it is really cool to see this sort of more positive outcome from it.

ROTT: It's a unique, if unwanted, opportunity, she says, to see what happens when fewer people drive, and one that we can hopefully learn from. Here's Shilling again.

SHILLING: I think all of us take for granted that wildlife will be around. You know, that's part of our worldview, and we imagine that that'll persist into the future. But science tells us that that's not necessarily true.

ROTT: The world is in the middle of an extinction crisis driven almost entirely by human activities. What this study shows, Shilling and Nguyen say, is that a simple act, like reducing the amount that we drive, could help to slow that trend.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.