ATLANTA (AP) -- Cars and trucks on a central Georgia highway could one day pass over black bears as the animals scamper under the roadway, avoiding the traffic that's often deadly to wildlife.
Georgia plans to add a half-dozen bear tunnels beneath State Route 96 in what will be a first-of-its-kind project for the state.
Preliminary plans have already been completed, and the state is now purchasing land along the highway, said Jeremy Busby, a project manager for the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Busby said the idea is similar to wildlife crossings designed for endangered panthers in Florida and other structures in some parts of the western United States.
It would be the first project of its type in Georgia, which has bears in three ranges: the north Georgia mountains; the Okefenokee Swamp near the Florida-Georgia line; and along the Ocmulgee River in central Georgia.
The State Route 96 project is designed to protect bears that roam along and near the river in the Ocmulgee and Oaky Woods wildlife management areas. Scientists assume there are around 300 bears in that general area, though an exact number isn't known, said Mike Chamberlain, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Georgia.
The wildlife crossings are part of an estimated $60.5 million overall project that involves widening the highway.
The passages will be placed in spots where bears typically attempt to cross, which often include places where streams and wet areas meet the highway.
"They are pretty much at low points in the topography where we felt the bears naturally travel," Busby said. "We're planning to install some fencing to funnel the wildlife into these crossings. So the bears will kind of be funneled underneath the road through these crossings."
The timeline for building the wildlife passages will depend on funding, which has not yet been secured.
Researchers from the University of Georgia are now trying to learn more about how the highway, which bisects the bears' central Georgia range, affects their movements.
"They are there in somewhat of an island of habitat," Chamberlain said.
A chief concern about the central Georgia bears is the fragmentation of that habitat, where forests have been replaced by nearby housing subdivisions and other developments, he said. Part of the research ongoing in the area involves bears fitted with radio collars that allow researchers to track their movements.
"What we do know is that bears are not always killed by vehicles," Chamberlain said. "One of our collared bears was hit by a vehicle some time ago, and she did not die by the strike."
Scientists have also placed remote cameras near current bridges along State Route 96 to monitor the bears' movement.
"We're getting pictures of bobcats and deer and all kinds of other species," Chamberlain said.
He's working with UGA wildlife ecology graduate student Mike Hooker and others on a variety of research projects involving the central Georgia bears. They've set up barbed wire in the area, which snares bear hair when the animals cross it. The barbed wire is checked regularly, and hair samples are sent to a lab to analyze the DNA of the animals, Chamberlain said. That aspect of their research could yield more data on the numbers of bears in the area and their genetic makeup, which could yield clues about the health of the population.
Although the project is a first for Georgia, Florida has built wildlife passages for a variety of critters.
Some are on a stretch of Interstate 75 in South Florida known as Alligator Alley. Other wildlife crossings throughout the state are used by bears, deer and other animals.
"It's kind of like that old saying `if you build it, they'll come,"' said Mark Lotz, a Florida panther biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Everything that lives down here basically uses them, so they're of great benefit."