Inquirer Editorial: Reptile crossing

A northern pine snake, with DEP zoologist William Pitts.
A northern pine snake, with DEP zoologist William Pitts.
Posted: August 05, 2014

While easing human travels via the Atlantic City Expressway, New Jersey officials have admirably accommodated the rare reptiles that might venture to cross the highway. Better yet, they're deploying technology to make sure they do so.

Vehicles traveling along the six-lane highway, which divides the Pinelands National Reserve, are a threat to some of New Jersey's already threatened wildlife population. One rare creature that finds its home in the Pinelands is the elusive northern pine snake.

At up to seven feet long with boldly patterned light and dark scales, the snake may look scary, especially when it hisses loudly and vibrates its tail at an intruder. According to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, however, the pine snake "is harmless to people and is a beneficial predator in nature."

And of course it's no match for a speeding Shore-bound SUV. So the South Jersey Transportation Authority partnered with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to build four tunnels beneath the Atlantic City Expressway as part of the widening project now nearing completion, allowing animals to traverse the road without the risk of becoming roadkill. Similar crossings are being planned around the state to protect amphibians and reptiles in particular, cold-blooded creatures being dangerously attracted to sunbaked roads.

Motion-activated cameras were recently added to capture animals traveling through the tunnels on video, as The Inquirer's Jan Hefler reported. They will help conservationists determine how well the tunnels are allowing the pine snake and other species to travel to and fro without spending time on the unforgiving road.

The DEP's Bob Considine said agency officials hope footage from the cameras will eventually be available to the public online, though not necessarily live. "We think people would enjoy it," Considine said.

The Atlantic City Expressway marked the 50th anniversary of its opening last week; construction started in 1962 and was completed three years later. The current $58 million widening project will add a third westbound lane from the Garden State Parkway to Route 73. The highway became vital to the region long before the Pinelands won national protection, much as the needs of America's drivers have long superseded the needs of its wildlife, even if the latter have always been threatened by highway development and traffic.

The tunnels, and the effort to ensure they're working, are a modest but noble attempt to reconcile the needs of people and nature. Here's hoping evidence of their success will soon show up on our screens.

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