CUBA, N.M. — The transportation crews patrolling U.S. 550 call it the Valley of Death.

Just north of Cuba, a dry riverbed intersects with the highway, blocking a natural corridor for elk and deer.

They often hop up into the roadway, sometimes struck dead by vehicles traveling 65 mph. The collisions aren’t safe for drivers either.

But this stretch of highway may be due for a new nickname. It’s identified as a priority in an ambitious plan to build a new network of wildlife crossings throughout New Mexico over the coming decades.

The goal is to make New Mexico’s highways safer for humans and animals alike, in addition to connecting wildlife habitat.

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said the planned wildlife crossings reflect a growing acknowledgement of the way ecosystems are connected.

“When we develop our cities, counties, roads and everything else,” she said in an interview, “our legacy is to ignore wildlife, and we have to stop doing that.”

Stewart joined more than a dozen state officials and others on Thursday to tour the stretch of U.S. 550 where the first animal overpass in New Mexico is expected to be built.

Federal and state officials conduct a tour along U.S. 550 north of Cuba at a site where a wildlife crossing will be installed.
(John Austria/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s part of a 15-mile stretch of the highway north of Cuba targeted for changes to reduce collisions and connect habitat. Carried out in phases, construction alone could cost $90 million, state officials said, with major work starting in 2025.

The Valley of Death itself — just one part of the broader U.S. 550 project — is expected to feature an underpass. Culverts too small for elk now lie below the highway. The state Department of Transportation is planning to reconstruct the section to make it a full underpass big enough for large elk and their antlers.

Michael Dax, western program director of the advocacy group Wildlands Network, which organized Thursday’s tour, said New Mexico is well-positioned to win federal funding for the U.S. 550 project and other wildlife crossings.

The state was the first in the nation, he said, to create a wildlife corridor action plan based on the movement of large animals, such as elk, black bears, mountain lions and bighorn sheep.

The 756-page document identifies priorities for reducing wildlife and vehicle collisions, with objective data that, Dax said, will strengthen the state’s applications for grant funding.

State Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the House committee that handles transportation projects, said wildlife corridors are an example of the kind of long-lasting public works that can be built with the state’s flood of one-time revenue.

Income from oil and gas production has helped push New Mexico’s annual budget to a historic high. But it’s a volatile revenue source, so state officials have been trying to direct much of it toward one-time expenses, such as a construction project.

“This is a perfect use for the one-time, nonrecurring funds,” Hochman-Vigil said during Thursday’s tour.

Garrett VeneKlasen of New Mexico Wild said he knows firsthand the terror of hitting an animal on the road. Going 75 mph, he said, he once hit a bobcat that went through his radiator, making the car inoperable.

“It’s really scary stuff,” he said.

In addition to killing an animal or damaging a vehicle, VeneKlasen said, a collision has the potential to cause a fatal wreck, especially if a driver were to swerve into oncoming traffic while trying to avoid wildlife.

“Everywhere you go — and everyone you talk to — has had either a collision or a near-death experience,” VeneKlasen said.

Outside of the human impact, wildlife crossings also have the potential to help connect wildlife habitat, broadening the range of animals seeking food amid the drought. In some cases, animals won’t cross a highway, and those that do risk collisions.

For outdoors enthusiasts, supporters say, the crossings could mean more deer and elk to hunt for food.

Trent Botkin, environmental bureau manager for the state Department of Transportation, said the projects also have the potential to limit the senseless loss of life.

In the fall and winter at the Valley of Death, for example, state Department of Transportation crews can end up hauling away an elk carcass or two each day.

“That’s a lot of animals we’d rather have in the New Mexico environment than pulled off the side of the road,” Botkin said.

Over the next 20 years, the wildlife corridor plan could help direct hundreds of millions of dollars in spending.

Some state funding is already available, Sen. Stewart said, but she will be on the hunt for more in next year’s legislative session.