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Corridor Q and Virginia’s Elk

How did elk return to Virginia?

In 2009, the Board of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (now, Department of Wildlife Resources) directed its staff to create an elk restoration plan. Elk were translocated from Kentucky to Buchanan County, VA between 2012 and 2014 to help establish a Virginia population. The original restoration site in Buchanan County is approximately 4–5 miles in straight line distance from the closest point on Corridor Q.

Please visit DWR’s elk webpage for additional information about Virginia’s elk restoration.

What is the history of the Corridor Q project?

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) began construction of Corridor Q in 2009. Planning for Corridor Q construction between Virginia and Kentucky has been ongoing since the 1990s. In 2020, an approximately one-mile section of Route 460, also known as federally designated Corridor Q, opened to traffic near the Virginia/Kentucky state line. The adjoining 8.4-mile segment that extends to Route 744 (or Southern Gap Road) was opened to the public in November 2023. The remaining portion from Route 744 to Route 460 at Grundy will be opened to the public in phases in 2025 and 2027.

Corridor Q covers almost 129 miles from Pikeville, Kentucky, to Christiansburg, Virginia. Five miles of new Corridor Q construction remain between Southern Gap and Grundy. Many refer to the Corridor as the “Route 121 (Coalfields Expressway),” however, Corridor Q only overlaps the expressway between the intersection of new Route 460, through the Hawks Nest section of Route 460/121, and through the Poplar Creek Phases A and B that are under construction and will connect at Grundy.

Why was Corridor Q built?

Corridor Q – Route 460/121 is being constructed to provide a modern and safe transportation system for the area and provide better access to health care, open the region for economic development, and improve interstate commerce. Additionally, motorists should see a significant reduction in travel times. Corridor Q is associated with the Appalachian Development Highway System, which was created in 1965 by Congress to connect Appalachia to the interstate system and encourage economic and tourism development in previously isolated areas.

Were elk restoration and the construction of Corridor Q part of one process?

Construction of Corridor Q and elk restoration were two separate projects spearheaded by different agencies that coincided in time.

Are elk present in the areas adjoining Corridor Q?

Elk regularly use the entire corridor area from the Breaks to Southern Gap and towards the town of Grundy. Location data from GPS-collared elk, ear-tagged elk, and observational data all indicate these animals stem from the restored herd in Virginia, as well as from natural movements of elk from Kentucky across the border to Virginia. There are over 200 elk in Buchanan County and they cover at least 30 square miles. The Department of Wildlife Resources is managing the elk population to increase their numbers.

How has Corridor Q impacted elk movement?

Interestingly, the construction of Corridor Q directly led to the geographic expansion and establishment of elk in the Corridor Q area by creating preferred habitat and a travel route for the animals. To illustrate this point, GPS-collared cows (female elk) that inhabit the area around the original release site (doesn’t include the corridor) have annual home ranges of about 2–4 square miles. GPS-collared cows that inhabit the Corridor Q area have annual home ranges of about 28 square miles. Furthermore, location data from GPS-collared individuals indicates that elk are expanding along Corridor Q as construction advances. Elk are herd animals, typically seen in large groups. Winter is the time of year they form their largest herds. It is not uncommon to encounter 50–75 animals together in one area.

Why are the elk attracted to the area along Corridor Q?

Elk primarily feed on grasses and forbs in fields and reclaimed surface mines. Grasses and forbs were also planted along Corridor Q for erosion mitigation and are now plentiful. The terrain in Buchanan County is very steep and difficult to traverse but the elk can walk along the corridor to move from field to field and can thereby cover much greater distances than if the corridor wasn’t there.

What are VDOT and DWR doing to protect motorists and the elk?

In late January 2024, VDOT placed two message boards along Route 460: one at the Breaks and one at the Southern Gap Rd (Rt 744) intersection to warn motorists of potential elk crossing along the route. Permanent elk crossing signs are being installed by VDOT in 2024. VDOT and DWR are developing shared public information campaigns to educate the public about the risks of animal-vehicle collisions.

An additional study is underway by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in conjunction with VDOT to evaluate the feasibility of animal detection/driver warning systems on Corridor Q for mitigating risk of elk-vehicle collisions. The study will be completed by mid-2024. Additional measures may be taken, as appropriate.

Have VDOT and DWR collaboratively studied this situation?

Yes. The Virginia Transportation Research Council published a study in 2023 that addressed elk vehicle collision mitigation and habitat connectivity along the corridor. DWR, The Wildlands Network, and ARC Solutions were coauthors. The study identified potential locations and designs for a series of wildlife crossing structures (i.e., underpasses, overpasses) connected by fencing, evaluated the costs and savings of implementing the recommended countermeasures, and determined potential federal funding programs. The study can be accessed here.

What is the Wildlife Corridor Action Plan?

It is worth noting that efforts are also taking place to identify and prioritize wildlife crossing locations at a statewide scale. Virginia’s first Wildlife Corridor Action Plan (WCAP) was finalized in May 2023. The WCAP agencies, led by DWR in collaboration with VDOT, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and the Department of Forestry (DOF), are making efforts to advance statewide data collection and identifying viable funding sources to address many of the recommended future actions identified in the WCAP. The study “An Evaluation of Wildlife Crossing Design, Placement, Costs, and Funding Opportunities for Corridor Q” was included in the WCAP as a case study.

In August 2023, VDOT as the lead applicant, in coordination with DWR, DCR, and DOF partnered on a grant application under the Federal Highway Administration’s Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program to assist with a multi-year planning study titled “Prioritizing Wildlife Road Crossings in Virginia: A Planning Study to Support Virginia’s Wildlife Corridor Action Plan.” The purpose of the study is to support meeting U.S. DOT priorities to advance safety benefits and efficient transportation, climate change and sustainability goals, and promote equity by reducing the likelihood of wildlife vehicle collisions, while also improving habitat connectivity for terrestrial and aquatic species. The study will provide the in-depth analysis, GIS mapping and planning tools, modeling, and public outreach needed to more accurately locate where wildlife crossing investments and future stakeholder engagement can be targeted. On December 5, 2023, FHWA announced it is awarding VDOT approximately $600,000, as part of their new Wildlife Crossing Pilot Program.

What is the core message?

VDOT and DWR are both committed to public safety and the enhancement of Virginia’s natural resources. Animal-vehicle collisions are a growing concern in terms of human safety, costs related to injury and property damage, and the viability of wildlife populations. There is a resident elk herd that regularly traverses Corridor Q and the surrounding area. Added caution is needed when traveling along Corridor Q as well as adjacent routes, such as Rt 744 (Southern Gap Rd), where the elk are known to roam. Slow down, especially during times of limited visibility, such as nighttime, adverse weather conditions, and around curves. Avoid distracted driving, use your high beam headlights when possible, and watch for the light reflecting off animals’ eyes along the edges of the road. Road salt attracts wildlife, such as elk and deer, to the roadway so be extra cautious during times of year when salt is applied to roads. We hope that drivers will prioritize their safety, the safety of others, and the safety of wildlife while taking advantage of the new highway and driving on the surrounding roads.