I spent last Friday exploring the underside of bridges, starting with a small bridge near Hopewell, New Jersey, along Route 518.
Joining me under the bridge was biologist Karena DiLeo, who handles flood hazard permits for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
What makes this particular bridge in Hopewell notable, for the moment, is that it's due for repair. Specifically, it's one of the first bridges subject to new flood hazard rules adopted by the state in 2016.
Among the new regulations, Karena explained, is a rule that requires consideration of terrestrial wildlife passage through culverts and bridges. The rule is triggered when a project occurs near likely habitat for threatened, endangered or special concern species. Around Hopewell, that means bobcats.
Have you heard? Bobcats have returned to Central Jersey, likely moving south from the New Jersey Highlands. Reports of local bobcat sightings have been trickling in for years, but it's never easy to get the photo that provides incontrovertible proof. Then, a few months ago, Mercer County native Tyler Christensen captured a photo of a bobcat on a trail cam on Baldpate Mountain, about 10 miles northwest of Trenton.
So they're here, at least in limited numbers. That's the good news. The bad news is that many bobcats turn up dead on New Jersey roadsides, and road mortality remains a major impediment to a statewide bobcat recovery. Which brings us back to the underside of bridges.
As it stands now—as my damp sneakers can attest—water flows under that bridge in Hopewell from one abutment to the other. If I were a bobcat hoping to cross Route 518 in safety by skirting under the bridge, I'd be required to enter the water. And bobcats, despite being otherwise fierce, don't generally like to get their feet wet. So they'll often risk the overland route, over the road, where speeding cars present a life-and-death game of Frogger.
As a result of the new flood hazard rules, a three-foot-wide concrete shelf will be installed under the bridge along each abutment at the time of its repair. This will provide bobcats (and many other creatures) the opportunity to cross under Route 518 along a natural riparian corridor without needing to enter the water. New bridge projects and repairs across the state will make similar accommodations. It's kind of a big deal. Engineering considerations like this can mean the difference between life and death for New Jersey's endangered species.
This point was punctuated later that same morning. Gretchen Fowles, a biologist with the state's Endangered & Nongame Species Program, had offered to show me some bridges, culverts and other likely bobcat crossings. As we traveled north, to Oak Ridge in Morris County, our next stop was an unplanned detour. We paused to pick up the body of a young female bobcat which had been struck and killed by a vehicle on a New Jersey road just a few hours earlier. -Jared Flesher, The Creature Show
If you're interested in stories about New Jersey's threatened and endangered species, please consider supporting The Creature Show's upcoming episode on bobcats: