Horicon’s Hellish Highway

As borderland birders – living along the Illinois-Wisconsin border – we are rewarded with great birdspots in both of these beautiful Midwestern states. We also try to monitor any news and sightings from our northerly friends. One topic that has been up for debate (again) is what to do about Horicon Marsh’s dreadful Highway 49.

There is a wonderful post about Highway 49 at Mike’s Birding & Digiscoping Blog that illustrates the problem at Horicon Marsh. Highway 49 is a heavily traveled road with a speed limit of 55 mph that cuts right through Horicon Marsh, a National Wildlife Refuge!! That fact alone is scary for wildlife but perhaps even scarier is birding along this highway.

Imagine scanning mudflats and pools of water for Dowitchers, Rails, and Egrets with eighteen-wheelers barreling by you at 65 mph – literally feet from your scope. See pictorial example below:

Horicon Marsh Scene 1
Horicon Marsh Scene 2
Horicon Marsh Scene 3

Now imagine you’re a Virginia Rail or Least Bittern trying in desperation to cross this concrete river – with your young. Several thousand individuals of 91 species of animals have been documented as roadkill. There are probably hundreds more that were missed. The most sickening of these totals are the 54 Least Bitterns!!

Under federal law it is illegal to pursue, hunt, take, capture or kill migratory birds. Running them over with a vehicle, intentional or not, would be a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The problem is simple: lots of heavy traffic going too fast along a road frequented by birders who are stopped along both sides of the highway. The shoulders are wide and designed for stoppage.

The solution is not so simple. Non-birders might say that the road should be banned from birders stopping along it. However, this is ludicrous considering that A) this is a National Wildlife Refuge and B) Horicon Marsh draws in TONS of birders and tourists which means lots of money and attention for the birds.

So what should be done? There have been ideas brought up but for us there is really only one thing that can be done. This stretch of highway should be closed to through traffic and converted into part of the refuge road. This would mean no trucks and a speed limit of 30 mph or less.

Some people might find this crazy and too big of an inconvenience but the stretch of road isn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere. A simple new route on county roads would cost drivers a mere 11 or so miles. So ask yourself this – is a small detour worth the safety of our birds, not to mention birders?

We are running out of great places so why should we allow the ones we have be tarnished? In the upcoming weeks we will be contacting various entities to let them know what we think. We would love to hear other opinions on this topic, even if you’ve never birded Horicon before. Roger Tory Peterson considered it one of the top 12 birding hotspots in the U.S. Let’s keep it that way.

2 thoughts on “Horicon’s Hellish Highway

  1. I know exactly what you are talking about, Birdfreak. My husband and I spent a few days visiting the NWRs of northern California, and although all three NWRs we visited were all contained between highways, it was still scary when we stopped by vista points/overlooks to watch the wildlife that was next to the highway. The scariest one was on Hwy 161, which straddles the state lines of California and Oregon. I was trying to spot several birds, mostly red-winged blackbirds and marsh wrens and some kind of thrush. But trucks going down the highway at 55+ kept disturbing the birds – as well as me. I do hope the powers that be will listen and consider changing the routes for those truckers and other travelers. Our wildlife should not have to live around that type of “civilization.”

  2. We have the same problem down here, RAMSAR Sites that are cut across by roads for shrimp farms.
    One solution that comes to my mind for your problem over there is some sort of underground passageways….like the ones they use for mammals and such in forests.

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