In a place where cars kill more black bears than anywhere else in South Carolina, engineers plan to build a four-lane road without the barriers that are supposed to prevent deadly collisions between motorists and the lumbering bruins.
The local road project near Myrtle Beach will create a paved highway out of a dirt lane that runs along the edge of Lewis Ocean Bay, a soggy 10,000-acre nature preserve known for the black bears that thrive there.
But the wildlife tunnels and high fences once considered as a way to keep bears off the highway have been dropped from the road plan – and local highway boosters are racing to launch the project in an effort to ease the Grand Strand’s notorious traffic congestion.
Highway backers in Horry County say the fences and wildlife passageways would add more than $3 million to the cost of the long overdue road. The state Department of Natural Resources abandoned its push for bear fences and wildlife culverts as the local effort to build the road intensified.
“We had no idea the cost was going to be so high,” said Mike Wooten, a state Transportation Commission member from Myrtle Beach.
The road, being paid for through a local tax in Horry County, was initially targeted to cost $6.5 million for two lanes. But a recent news report put the cost at $16.5 million. The road, called International Drive, extends for about 6 miles from near Conway to just west of Myrtle Beach, not far from the Carolina Bays Parkway.
Wooten said Horry County might have been able to scrape up money for bear culverts, but he’s unconvinced they are effective. Culverts have a variety of designs, but are essentially wide, tunnel-like areas carved beneath roads. They are supposed to let animals pass safely from one side of the road to habitat on the other side.
“Doing ridiculous things just because you can afford it makes no sense,” Wooten said. “It’s ludicrous.”
Environmentalists are livid. They aren’t opposing construction of the road between Myrtle Beach and Conway, but they want the culverts and fencing restored to the road construction plan.
The S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Environmental Law Project argue that the protective barriers will save the lives of people and bears. The devices also will allow wildlife to move freely past the highway, they say.
But they say the natural resources agency bowed to pressure and backed out of a 2010 agreement to protect the bears with wildlife culverts.
“I don’t want to see bears killed, but I don’t want to see humans killed or injured, either,” said retired DNR wildlife biologist Steve Bennett, who is critical of his former agency’s decision to abandon its push for culverts and fencing. “There are ways to mitigate the problem. Bears will go into culverts.”
Where the dispute ends is unknown. Last week, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control rejected an appeal of a permit the project needed to get started. Conservation groups are now considering a lawsuit in state court, although they are willing to discuss a possible compromise with Horry County leaders. A decision on a federal wetlands permit remains unresolved.
The issue in Horry County is unusual because it involves road construction in a rapidly developing area that, outside of the mountains, has the largest population of black bears in South Carolina. The area where the road will be widened is mostly forested today, but it backs up to the massive Carolina Forest community between Conway and Myrtle Beach.
A national report to Congress seven years ago said wildlife fences and engineered crossings keep animals away from roads – and collisions.
People are involved in 1 million to 2 million automobile-wildlife collisions each year on American highways, the report said. The study said animals were more likely to die in such crashes than people, and that collisions were particularly hazardous to the future of endangered species.
Wrecks involving cars and wildlife injure about 26,000 people each year – and kill 200, the study said. The wrecks also cause thousands of dollars in damage to cars.
Wildlife-car collisions “do occur and are a serious consequence,” the report said.
Dead bears on SC coast
While engineered wildlife culverts and tall fences aren’t found on many Palmetto State highways, few of those roads run through nature preserves inhabited by bears.
Nor do those areas have the history of bear-car collisions as on the state’s northern coast.
Statistics show that cars kill black bears more in coastal South Carolina than in the mountains, where the state’s other major bear population resides.
During the period from 2003 to 2013, motorists hit and killed 202 black bears in coastal South Carolina, compared to 107 bears killed in the mountains during the same period, according to Department of Natural Resources statistics.
The most bears to die in a single year during the 10 year period occurred in 2007 on the coast. That year, 40 bears were killed in collisions with cars.
Experts say the higher coastal death toll probably is because areas such as Myrtle Beach are more densely populated and developed than the mountains of Oconee, Pickens and Greenville counties.
Overall, the state has at least 1,200 black bears. There may be more, because the beasts are expanding their range across South Carolina, DNR biologists estimate. Most of the coastal bears historically have clustered in Horry and Georgetown counties, agency officials have said.
Deer are more plentiful in South Carolina and more likely to crash into cars than black bears are. But when cars hit bears, the damage can be more significant. Black bears are powerful creatures that stand up to 6 feet tall, with the average male weighing 150 to 350 pounds in South Carolina. The largest black bears in the state can reach 500 pounds. By contrast, a male white-tailed deer averages about 175 pounds, according to the DNR.
Because of the possibility of collisions between cars and bears, Department of Natural Resources officials insisted in 2010 that Horry County build three wildlife passageways under the new highway and erect fences about 8 feet high and topped with barbed wire.
The fencing would run for most of the length of the road between the Intracoastal Waterway near Myrtle Beach and the Waccamaw River near Conway, records show.
“The road will create a dangerous threat of harm to animals traversing the area, as well as a threats of harm to the traveling public due to collisions with animals,” according to a 2010 document in which the DNR agreed to allow the road through its Lewis Ocean Bay preserve in exchange for culverts and high fencing.
But as local politicians continued to push for construction of the road, DNR officials dropped their requirement for the three wildlife culverts. The agreement also required only standard highway fences, expected to be about 4 feet tall, instead of the engineered and bigger wildlife fences. The new agreement set a 45 mph speed limit when the road is widened to four lanes.
Horry County also agreed to pay the natural resources agency $122,210, the 2013 agreement shows.
Bob Perry, a DNR biologist involved in the negotiations, said the money promised to the DNR was “not a payoff” and his agency was not pressured by politicians to change its mind. Instead, the county was paying the state agency fair market value for a right of way to construct the road on DNR land.
Perry said he ultimately concluded that wildlife culverts and high fences would not prevent collisions from occurring on the new road. Animals could get through the fence on either end of the highway and become trapped, he said. That, he said, would make them more vulnerable to being hit by cars.
If a bear winds up 2 miles inside the fenced road way “and traffic is going through, and he can’t get over that fence to get out, he is a dead bear,” Perry said.
National studies show that devices can be created inside fences to help trapped animals get out. But Perry said he also is unconvinced about the need for culverts and fences for a more basic reason. Fewer bears are living in the area where the road will be built, he said. A 2009 wildfire sent many animals scrambling from the natural resources department’s heritage preserve.
“This is not something the DNR took lightly and changed the contract on a whim,” he said. “We had compelling reasons to revisit the contract.”
Wooten, the state Transportation Commissioner, also questioned why the agency ever sought wildlife passages for black bears when it allows sportsmen to hunt the animals every year.
“If you really want to take care of the bears, quit shooting them,” he said.
He said it’s vital to get the International Drive project going to help Conway and Myrtle Beach residents avoid the traffic jam found on nearby U.S. 501.
Widening the narrow, dirt road has long been envisioned. An interchange on the Carolina Bays Parkway lines up with the road, parts of which would be expanded in wetland areas.
Many people, he said, are frustrated that bears are getting so much attention when the area needs the road.
Locals would have a good connector road, Wooten said. But the county’s garbage trucks also would be able to move more quickly from the beaches to the Horry dump near Conway, he said.
The decision not to use tall fences and animal passageways on the Horry County road is in contrast to other areas across the country. Wildlife barriers keep animals from being run over by cars, according to the extensive 2008 report to Congress.
Fences of up to 8 feet tall can reduce collisions by 87 percent between cars and large animals, according to the report by a team of researchers from the United States and Canada. Fences and animal passageways also can protect an array of species, not just the ones they are designed for, said Montana State University researcher Rob Ament, who coauthored the study.
“Most studies have shown a total reduction of the mortality of wildlife – and collisions with motorists,” Ament said.
Other examinations of wildlife-vehicle crashes have yielded similar findings.
One 2011 report, conducted by a University of Central Florida researcher for the N.C. Department of Transportation, said the number of animals killed on a segment of a Sunshine State highway dropped sharply after barrier walls and underpasses were installed.
In the year before construction, 2,411 animals were killed by cars on the section of U.S. 441, the report said. In the year after construction, only 158 animals died on that stretch of road.
The Central Florida study cited another report showing endangered Florida panthers, black bears, bobcats and deer used wildlife underpasses on Interstate 75 in that state’s southern section.
Central Florida’s report said wildlife passages and fencing don’t always work. They need to be in the right locations, experts say. And they can be expensive. Proposed bear passageways on one Montana project, for instance, cost as much as $2.4 million apiece, the report said. Other reports show that animals can get past fences if the structures are not built properly.
Still, the Central Florida study said roads are among the greatest threats to wildlife.
“It is widely recognized by biologists that crossing structures are needed in many cases to allow wildlife to successfully cross highways,” the study said.