Aired: March 7, 2020

Mountains in Harmony

An ex-miner at an abandoned coal mine in Romania. Image credit: Flore de Préneuf / World Bank

  • Frank Newsome and the Hymns of the Old Regular Baptists (18 min.)

    With: John Lohman (Virginia Humanities)

    Frank Newsome is an Old Regular Baptist preacher, singer of lined-out hymnody, and former coal miner in Appalachia. This remarkable singer released an album in 2018. Folklorist Jon Lohman describes Newsome’s musical tradition and its influence on bluegrass, gospel, and oldtime music.

  • Coal Miners of the Carpathian Mountains (10 min.)

    With: Theresa Burris (Radford University)

    Central Appalachia is unique for its music, mountain landscape, and coal mining industry. But travel to the Carpathian Mountains in Romania and you’ll find a place that’s not unlike southwest Virginia and Kentucky. Theresa Burris says the parallels of these two regions are striking.

  • The Surprising Inhabitants of Former Coal Mines (12 min.)

    With: Wally Smith (University of Virginia College at Wise)

    Turns out, former coal mines can yield important biological discoveries. Wally Smith recently found a type of green salamander that lives in this habitat of vertical cliffs, bluffs, and rock crevices. Smith was named Outstanding Faculty of 2018 by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

  • Decoding the Problem of Roadkill (12 min.)

    With: James Vance (University of Virginia College at Wise)

    A study in Appalachia is taking a very close look at roadkill. James Vance hopes to find ways to help animals avoid crossing a particularly high-traffic area.


Download a pdf of the full episode transcript here.

Speaker key:

SM: Sarah McConnell, producer and host

AS: Audio Sample

FN: Frank Newsome

JL: Jon Lohman

TB: Theresa Burris

WS: Wally Smith

JV: James Vance



SM From Virginia Humanities, this is With Good Reason. [music]. This is the title track from a new album featuring an old regular Baptist preacher, singer, and former coal miner, Frank Newsome. It’s called, Gone Away With a Friend. [music]. This song is part of an Appalachian tradition that’s been called the oldest English language religious music passed down orally in America. I’m Sarah McConnell, and today on With Good Reason, Frank Newsome, and the hymns of the old regular Baptist. [music]. Later in the show, bringing the worlds of Appalachia and the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. But first, elder Frank Newsome was born in Pike Country, Kentucky and was one of 22 children. Much of his early career was spent in the coal mines of far southwest Virginia. In 2014, With Good Reason’s Kelly Libby visited Newsome and his family in Hayside, Virginia, and made recordings of his church services, along with reflections on his music and life. She also recently spoke with Virginia State folklorist Jon Lohman about the new album and Frank Newsome’s music tradition. She brings us this tribute to Frank Newsome.

FN You know, the Bible says that for a trumpet, [inaudible] an imperfect sound. How would you prepare yourself for battle? There’s a battle a-coming. And it says, make a joyful noise unto the Lord. And that’s all I’m trying to do–make a joyful noise to the king of our king. [music].


JL Well, Frank would say he’s an old country preacher–he’s a minister at the Little David Old Regular Baptist Church in Hayside, Virginia, which is deep in coal country, right close to Kentucky in deep south West Virginia.

AS [music].

JL Old Regular Baptists are a small congregation, pretty tight knit. They are a denomination that believes very, very strongly in heaven and hell. I’d say that’s their major theme in getting to heaven, and that there’s only one way to get there, which to them is to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior.

AS Amen. [inaudible].

JL Typical church service at Old Regular Baptist Church, which of course takes place on a Sunday and you see the congregation, they’re always very casually dressed–you see people in blue jeans, or whatever they happen to be wearing. You’ll have the preacher up at his pulpit, and you will have around him, typically it’ll be the men of the congregation sitting in a circle around him. And the preacher is up and he’s preaching to them, talking to them, and while he’s doing it, he’s calling out each name constantly. He’ll say, “isn’t that right, brother Joe? Isn’t that right?” And each time, he’s reaching out, and holding their hand.

AS I’d rather speak five words, brother [inaudible].

That’s right.

JL So there’s this constand hand-holding going on. The women are sitting in the back often in the pews, during this. At some point, the sermon turns into song.

AS [song]

JL And, there’s a call and response going on with the congregation. So he will–he, what they call ‘line out,’ or sing out a line, and the congregation responds.

AS [call and response]

JL The energy builds. It’s an intense thing to see.

AS [song]

JL When it’s time to pray, people really pray. The Old Regular Baptists, they are on the floor often. Their heads are on the pews. They are very vocal about it. The energy in there gets quite loud, and just very, very intense.

AS [song, yelling]


JL Frank worked in the mines for many years, and it’s a work that, of course, has sadly contributed, I think, quite a bit to some of the problems that he’s having now. Frank contracted black lung in the mines, which is amazing to people when they hear him, because his voice remains so powerful. But when Frank talks about the mines, he speaks about them very fondly. He said that, even with the health problems he’s had, that if he could do it all over again, he’d go right back into the mines. And a lot of people feel that way down there. They’re very proud of the work, and a lot of them, as hard as it is, really love that work.

AS [song]

FN Oh gosh, I wish you could’ve heard me [coughs] 30 years ago. Lord have mercy. I wish I had a voice like I did then, cause I got this high–I guess high pitch voice or something. I can’t get low. Like, Randy Travis down here, I can’t get there. It just smothers me to death. But I’m singing the way I do, you see? [inaudible]. And I just thank the good Lord for it. I tried to use for his glory, his honor. No worldly gain or nothing like that. But just to show that I’m trying to serve the Lord. Let people know, I’m not ashamed of it.

JL When people hear Frank sing, they often say, “Wow, he sounds a lot like Ralph Stanley. And, what I like to tell people is that, it would actually be more accurate to say that Ralph Stanley sounds a whole lot like Ralph. Because Ralph came out of that tradition–he came out of the Old Regular Baptist tradition, as well as the primitive Baptist tradition. He attended Frank’s church often. So, that style of singing that Ralph brought to bluegrass music is actually comes right out of that church tradition. [music]. Ralph Stanley also took this music from the Old Regular Baptist and the Primitive Baptist, and of course he added music to it. You know, he brought in bluegrass music, and played the banjo, but it’s important to note that, in the church, they actually don’t allow musical instruments. All the music is sung a capella and that’s really important to them. They believe it’s actually against the word of the Bible to have musical instruments in church. [music]

FN Everytime you see me crying–it ain’t of joy. I’m hurting inside. And I get to thinking about how sick people is. I break down and cry. With this cry [inaudible], joy of the Lord.

JL A primary part of Frank’s job as the preacher of Little David Old Regular Baptist church is unfortunately performing a lot of funerals. He’s called upon all the time to do that. [music]

FN I have been called to Florida in the funeral home where I turned [inaudible] Springs. I’ve been called to Michigan in funerals. I’ve been called [inaudible]. Indiana, in funerals. Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, and Virginia, here.

JL And I have attended three funerals in one day. The notion of getting to heaven is so important to these folks. And Frank is really their link to that. And he’s their leader in that. He’s really the glue of that community and performing funerals is a major part of it, and there are a lot of funerals down there. There’s a lot of disease down there, and cancer, a lot of that comes from the coal mining. Also, this is not an affluent area down there–deep southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky. It’s a hard life and that’s why, when it’s time to pray, they pray so hard. And they pray for so many people. So, Frank is quite busy, sadly, with funerals.

FN [singing] And now, the brother, they know I’m [inaudible] pretty bad. And I’m not called in funerals like I was when I was young. They respect me and they know how I am, and my breathing, and–but I still go to show my respect. I’ve never turned nobody down in a funeral [singing]

JL Back in 2011, we went down to record Frank at his pulpit on Thursday evening in the church. And produced an album of his singing. We called it Gone Away With a Friend, which is one of his favorite hymns. We originally released it on our own label here–Virginia Folklife Records. It has since been rereleased on Free Dirt Records. We’re very excited about that–Free Dirt’s a wonderful label with much wider distribution than we ever had. So, the hope there is that more people will hear Frank.

FN [singing]


JL There’s just something about that voice, there’s something about what he’s singing about, which is just that total desire and faith that the hard life that he’s leading now–that there’s a home for him in heaven. And just him as a person, he’s \such a beautiful person, he’s a funny person, he’s a kind person. And that singing, that style of singing just gives you chills. It’s hard to explain, but it just does.

FN [singing] I just got the gift that God gave me. I don’t try to act like nobody else. I’m just Frank. I’m an old hillbilly, I’ll never change from what I am. I’m too close to home now [coughs] to do that. [singing]

SM [music] That was produced by Kelly Libby, featuring Jon Lohman, who’s the Virginia State folklorist and director of the Virginia Folklife program at Virginia Humanities. Coming up next–from the coalfields of Appalachia to those of Romania. Central Appalachia is unique for its musical traditions, its mountain landscapes and its coal mining industry. But travel to the Carpathian mountains in Romania and you’ll find a place that’s not unlike southwest Virginia and Kentucky. Theresa Burris is director of Radford University’s Appalachian studies program and co-chair of the Appalachian Carpathian international conference. She says the parallels between these two regions are striking.

TB The Carpathian mountains–they extend from the Czech Republic into Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. Now, the majority of the mountain chain is in Romania.

SM I read there were once 55,000 coal miners in this region in Romania, and they’re just sort of a shadow of themselves now…so many of these mines are being closed.

TB That’s right. And, you know, some people would think, well what does central Appalachia have to do with post-socialist Romania? The miners in Romania are struggling to re-establish themselves. They’ve been maligned by Romanian society. Mining has been such an integral part of these people’s identity. It’s been a difficult transition re-inventing not just their communities but their very identity.

SM What was the political situation the miners embraced that made them more controversial figures in recent Romanian history when it came to the government?

TB It was in the 1980s–they were striking. They ended up marching to Bucharest. And, there was some violence involved. And, because of that, even though the miners have said themselves that they were fighting for all of labor and the working people in Romania, they are looked at as barbaric relics of socalist, communist Romania, which is really tragic in a lot of ways. I think that they have been scapegoated.

SM And what remains of the coal mining industry there? Some coal mining but nowhere near as much?

TB Yes, much like what has happened in central Appalachia. The mining industry has been decimated.

SM It is similar to places you’ve seen along the Appalachian mountains?

TB Very much so. In fact, Cold Mountain, Charles Frasier’s novel that was turned into a movie–that is where they filmed, because it looked so much like the western North Carolina mountains back Civil War era, because they didn’t have the power lines and that sort of thing.

SM Give us a little history of the coal mining in that region. It goes back to, what, the 1800s?

TB Really more established in the 20th century, early 20th century. And, they primarily have had only deep mining. They don’t have surface coal mining like we do in central Appalachia. You can see these huge structures that show the shaft elevators that would take the miners deep into the earth. And you can see the remnants of these really deep shafts. It’s pretty amazing, actually, in terms of the engineering.

SM So, the village of Petrella actually has the oldest mine and deepest in the entire region.

TB Yes, there is a gentleman there by the name of Ion Barbu, who is a former miner and he is trying to transform this once thriving coal mining community into something else–much like what is happening in central Appalachia, they’re having to re-invent themselves, because coal is not viable. And because of Barbu and other former miners, they are trying to buy this once state-owned mine to convert it into a museum.

SM Tell me a little bit more about Barbu. He himself was a coal miner, but he’s also a real change agent when it comes to appreciating and developing this cultural past.

TB Yes, Barbu has such an energy about him. He’s an artist and I would consider him an outsider artist because he’s not been trained in a classical sense. He’s a provocateur. He holds people, government, elected officials accountable. Therefore, he’s somewhat of a gadfly.

SM Right.

TB But he has the Romanian plumber’s museum in Petrasham cram-packed with images and dolls and clothing and, I mean, everything is art to Barbu and is, I think, intended to provoke people to get out of their paradigm–their rote paradigm of looking at the world.

SM We often think of the coal miners as extremely proud of their profession in Appalachia, and proud they’ve been the ones keeping the lights on for the rest of us. Is there also that kind of coal mining pride in the Carpathian region?

TB Very much so, Sarah. One of the former miners that I met in November–he had started as a miner and worked his way up to a mining supervisor and, when he was talking with us, there was such pride in what he had done. It’s very similar to the pride of the Appalachian coal miner.

SM You know, so often we don’t understand our own homes and cultures until we leave them. Did you have insights into your own Appalachian communities and scholarship that, when you were halfway across the world, that you hadn’t really thought about until you arrived there?

TB What struck me was this affiliation–this really corporeal, really, affiliation with the mountains–between the humans and the landscape. That is what has struck me. Because you can see how the people interact with the landscape, how it has shaped the way they view life, the way they make sense of their day-to-day existence, you know, I think about Eo Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, and that there’s this innate human need to be in nature. And I see that in these mountain communities.

SM Do they experience the same poverty, disease, and even black lung, let’s say, among the miners that we struggle with here?

TB Yes, poverty is definitely an issue in some of the Carpathian regions that I’ve visited, much like central Appalachia. There are definitely health issues. Tobacco use is very high. I mean, we have high tobacco use in central Appalachia and the same is true in the Carpathian regions that I visited. When I asked, because I’m very interested in black lung. One of my graduate students is actually conducting oral histories with miners who have black lung, and I have as well in the past. And I asked, when I was there in November, if that was something that they deal with. And they said, it is mostly silicosis, which is actually worse. What I’ll end with, when I was in Romania in November of 2018, it just so happened–it was just happenstance that the University of Bucharest was having their American cultural celebration that week and I spoke to some students at Bucharest University, or University of Bucharest I should say, and several of them came up to me afterwards and said, “we so appreciate you being here.” And I said, “I have fallen in love with your country. It is just incredible in terms of the beauty and the cultures and I think it is underappreciated.” And they said, “yes, we are not on the radar, and we want to be on the radar.” [music]

SM Theresa Burris is director of Radford University’s Appalachian studies program and co-chair of the Appalachian Carpathian international conference. [music] This is With Good Reason. We’ll be right back.


[music] Welcome back to With Good Reason from Virginia Humanities. I’m Sarah McConnell. It turns out former coal miners can yield important biological discoveries. Wally Smith teaches biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise in the Appalachian mountains. And he recently came upon a rare green salamander living in this unique habitat. Wally, tell me about the green salamander. Where does it fit sort of in the salamander spectrum.

WS Well, the green salamander is the oddball in the salamander world, at least in the salamanders of the eastern U.S. because, number one, it’s the only really truly green colored salamander that we got. It’s this beautiful almost kind of neon, lime green color. And that color kinda serves as double-duty camouflage. It camouflages in the trees–it lives up in the forest canopy, and then it also camouflages on rock faces. And that habitat, living in trees and living on vertical rock faces makes it really bazaar. Most salamanders that you find under a log on the forest floor or under a rock in a stream somewhere, but these are climbers. And they can be 20-30-50 feet, even, off the ground.

SM How big are they?

WS Not big at all. The largest one we have ever found–the largest one we think that is on record was around six and a half to seven inches long, which is not that big for an animal but for a green salamander it is. Typically, around three and a half to four inches, maybe five inches is about as long as they are. So, you know, you imagine roughly the length of your index finger down to your wrist.

SM How long do you think they can live?

WS We don’t necessarily know. We think, roughly, maybe 15 to 20 years is probably a safe bet for a salamander which seems bazaar for an animal that seems so fragile. You know, when you see them, you don’t think they could live that long but we’ve got a salamander–it’s not a green salamander, it’s a spotted salamander, so one that lives in forests and ponds across the region that has been around for about six years. We found it. It was a female, she was six, she had reproduced several years ago. We didn’t think she was going to make it so we took her back to the lab and kind of nursed her back to health. And, she was an adult. She was at least several years old when we found her. But she’s been around for six years, she’s still trekking around. As long as they have food, as long as they have the right habitat, the right environmental conditions, then they can be pretty hardy. They can be fairly resilient animals.

SM What do you call her?

WS The students haven’t really given her a formal name yet. We kind of call her Dwina as one of the names for them. I don’t know where that comes from but that’s one of the names that one of the student groups gave to her, and we take her around to school groups to, you know, educate about what salamanders are because they’re a really fundamental part of our ecosystem but not a lot of people see them.

SM So, help me understand where the green salamander lives near your college campus and why it thrilled you one day when you found one not far away.

WS Yeah, so it kinda goes to the story and the mythology–a little bit–of the green salamander, because it’s not only this really specialized animal that really lives in any place, but we also think, at least, from what we see in the literature and in field guides and from what experts have said over the years that the salamander is very rare, first of all, and then second of all, it’s very sensitive to disturbance. So anything that upsets its habitat, that disturbs the forest, we, you know, thought previously that they just could not tolerate that. And what got us really excited about finding them here on our campus is the UVA Wise campus is about 400 acres in size and about 300 acres of that space is a former surface mine, so an area that has been mined for coal several different times over the decades. And right at the center of that mine is this little collection of three or four sandstone boulders, each about the size of a car. And, for years, we had seen those boulders, we had never even thought to look for green salamanders there, because the salamanders are kind of assumed to just get wiped out with any kind of disturbance. And I was back, I guess, two or three years ago, walking along in that surface mine across campus and came across those boulders, and I happened to have a flashlight with me and I said, you know what? I don’t think this salamander can live there but I’m going to take a look.

SM [laughs] You know, spoken like a true frog and salamander expert, right?

WS Exactly–that’s the way that a lot of salamander hunting goes is, you know, that looks like a good habitat [laughs] let’s go check that out. So, kinda use my kind of almost hounddog sense of sniffing out habitats and saying, “Okay, we’ll just go check” and walked up with my flashlight and one of the first crevices that I shined that light into, there was a little bright green face kind of staring back out at me going, “What are you doing here?” And I had the same exact reaction, “What are you doing here?” Cause you’re not supposed to live in an old surface mine [laughs]. And that, you know, really got me excited because here you have this animal that was not supposed to be in that place, that was not supposed to be in that disturbed habitat but here it was, it was hanging on. And so that was a really exciting discovery to make almost by chance. Just taking a look at that particular rock.

SM Can you give me a feeling for how excited you were?

WS Possibly too excited [laughs] I let out a yell, people probably thought that I was in trouble. I kind of whooped a little bit in the woods when I found it. There may have been a fist pump or two that kind of happened there in the woods, but, you know, almost a childlike excitement. That’s one of the things I love about working with salamanders is it’s almost a surprise when you find one in the woods and it was especially a surprise there, so thankfully I was alone. I was probably a little bit too jazzed up, finding it, but it was a really exciting moment to get to see it in that spot.

SM Did the little green face disappear when you whooped?

WS Not when I whooped but when the light hit it it did. I always think, for that particular species, when you shine a light on them, I imagine it’s kind of the salamander equivalent of an alien abduction because there’s a bright light all of a sudden and then you’re picked up and you’re poked and you’re prodded and then you’re put back and I imagine none of the other salamanders believe it after the fact. So, it saw that light and it was trying to crawl back into that crevice as far as it could go.

SM Did you ever see it again?

WS That–I’m not sure if it was that same individual but after that, after that initial discovery, we went out with a really group of students that we have here and another faculty member that we have in our department and kind of did a more intensive survey of that little cluster of rocks on the old surface mine and found a number of salamanders there. We’ve been probably between 10 and 15 now at this point. And we know some are bigger, some are smaller, so we’ve got some adults, some younger individuals. But at some point we probably did come across that same one. They tend to kind of stay home in the same crevice year after year.

SM So this is one family group in all likelihood, right?

WS Yeah, they probably are related. That’s one of the concerns actually with a smaller population sometimes is inbreeding. Because, when the only individuals around you are the ones that you’re related to, then you’re going to have no one else to reproduce with. So we don’t necessarily know–we’d probably have to do some genetic work to look and see how closely related they are. But they are very likely tracing back to the group that’s been there since before that–that surface mining was done.

SM So what are you thinking, that they were hanging out there. Surface mining went on on several occasions over the years all around them but they laid low and survived or that after the surface mining scarred the 400 acres, and then it was filled in and reclaimed, they dragged their little moist bellies across the acreage to these boulders.

WS That is really, kind of, the important question with this study is, you know, again this animal isn’t supposed to tolerate disturbance and either of those possibilities really isn’t possible when you think about what we know about this species. It could be that they did hold on after mining there, that they weren’t wiped out, or possibly there wasn’t a population there that got wiped out when mining occurred and, just like you said, they somehow crawled from some other population nearby to re-colonize this site and re-populate it. But, really, either possibility kind of totally rewrites what we know about this species, because we don’t think, given the information that we had before this discovery, that these salamanders could tolerate any kind of disturbance. We didn’t think either possibility could really happen at all. So, we’re not sure. We don’t really have the data that we would need to show which of those could be happening. We probably need some more intense work to tell. But either possibility is really exciting because it tells us the species that we used to think is very rare and very sensitive might be a lot more tolerant and resilient to disturbance than we’d ever thought.

SM You’re in the heart of coal mining country, right?

WS Yes, we’re right at the very center of the Appalachian coal fields. We’re actually toward the eastern side but, the area, the county where our campus is located in has some of the most intensive history of surface mining than really anywhere else in the central Appalachian region.

SM What is surface mining? Does that mean mountain top removal?

WS Yeah, so mountaintop removal is one form of surface mining. And surface mining is a whole–it’s kind of the catch all term for several different types of coal extraction where, instead of digging a shaft deep underground to reach the coal, like we usually think about going underground to mine for coal, here, the rock layers that are on top of the coal seam are removed. And in mountaintop removal, the strategy there is to blast those rocks away to expose the coal so that you can extract it. And then the rocks that you extracted, you call that the overburden. The rocks that were on the top of the coal–they’re then pushed down into a surrounding valley in what’s called a valley fill. And that’s where a lot of the negative environmental consequences of mountaintop removal come from. Because, when you do that, you’re burying streams, you’re burying potential rock outcrops where species like the green salamander could live.

SM And when you look at those former mountaintops, do you see now ugly scars or do you just see green rolling hills that are a little lower than they were before?

WS Well it depends. A little bit of both. In some cases. The big, really impactful mountaintop removal sites that you see in the media or in the news, you know, in pictures that are posted a lot of times, those sites do kind of have the moonscape look to them where you see the scars across the landscape. But there are some older mines, especially those that had been reclaimed, where they tried to restore the contour of the landscape, or there had been special efforts made to plant native trees back where they used to be. Those sites can be a little tougher to distinguish. Those still look like a mine, maybe the landscape or terrain doesn’t look quite like it used to, but there are some mines out there that kind of remain hidden unless you know what you’re looking for because forests have started to reclaim those. So, it’s kind of a patch work, almost, across the Appalachian region, of mines that have taken place at different times, have been reclaimed in different ways, that kind of create this diversity of habitats that are all fragmented in different ways. So the other reason why we are interested in looking at some of these disturbed places to see if wildlife could live there is, you know, outside of the coal fields, there’s kind of a misconception about what happens on disturbed sites. But even within the coal fields, a lot of times we have this tendency to view former surface mines as kind of worthless throw-away habitats that are places to develop an industrial park or something like an ATV park. And those are perfectly good uses for old surface minds, but there’s also those complexities that we miss potentially and the value that we miss of some of these landscapes when we only view them as these negative places that don’t have any worth. And so that kind of led us to ask some of these questions about disturbance as well is what are we missing is we’re not really looking at the full pictures of some of these habitats? [music]

SM Wally Smith teaches biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. He was named an Outstanding Professor of 2018 by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. His findings were published in the journal Herpetological Conservation in Biology. Coming up next, how to help animals avoid cars on highways.


Humans and cars are a dangerous combination, especially if you’re a skunk, raccoon, deer, or turtle just trying to get across the road. My next guest is a mathematician who decided it was time to stop and count the roadkill and see if he could devise a way to help stop the wildlife massacre. James Vance is a professor of mathematics and wildlife resources at the University of Virginia College at Wise. James, are there any figures that you’re away of of how many animals are dying on roads every day in the U.S.?

JV Yes, yeah, there can be up to 10 or even 15 or 20 animals killed per night per mile. And that’s of animals that we can see. You know, small animals like salamanders and frogs, it can be up into the hundreds per night on certain stretches for certain nights.

SM Has there been concern on the part of scientists about actually decimating populations, whole species?

JV Well, for a lot of the species that are pretty abundant, there’s not too much concern, like in our roadkill, we had like 1837 roadkills but 400-and-something of those were Virginia opossum. The big concern for most people has been larger animals, like moose or elk or deer, where there’s significant human casualty. And most of those larger animals have fairly stable populations.

SM How did those whole idea occur to you to study how many animals are being killed on the highway?

JV Basically my nose started it all. I was driving the 60 miles to work everyday and especially in the springtime, I was seeing so many dead skunks on the road. It was just skunk after skunk after skunk, so it finally took me a couple years to say, you know what, I’m gonna study these guys. I’m afraid of how many are dead on the road, how many were killed, different species that were killed, where they were killed, and trying to figure out if we could like, time it. Is there a reason I’m just seeing most of them at this particular time?

SM So, what did you do? You started monitoring that 60 mile stretch of four lane high traffic highway? How long was that?

JV Yeah, so I did it twice a week for a whole year. And we got 1837 animals in that one year period in that 60 miles.

SM What kind of animals did you find?

JV So everything from bear and deer all the way down to even frogs, mice, rats, lots and lots of birds, so there was a whole gamut of animals that we saw and collected. Again, the most of which were pretty common species like the Virginia possum or the raccoon. 65 different species in total. We had eastern screech owl or bard owl, we had lots of songbirds, we had some relatively rare-ish mammals like mink and long tailed weasels.

SM How are you spotting the carcasses? Surely, you’re not taking time off everyday to travel up and down these road stretches.

JV Actually, I do. I live in Richlands, and I drive to Wise twice a week for work. And so I just leave an hour and a half early and I stop at every carcass I see on the road.

SM Isn’t that dangerous for you to cross the highway? [laughs]

JV [laughs] Well, yes, and no. I’ve never had any close calls that I know of. I got a light on my car, so an amper light on my car, and then I also wear an orange vest. And so then I’m just careful.

SM I understand you’re also using Google Earth and Google Street view. How does that help you?

JV So what that does is that keeps us from being in the field beside fast moving vehicles and we can collect a lot of the same variables on the computer, like, what is the habitat type like in the median? We can see that from Google Street View.

SM Did you have a lot of bears?

JV Oh yeah we did. We did see bears. I think we found three bears in one year but it was more rare for us to see bears and even deer cause most of the time, when a bear or deers get hit, there’s significant vehicle damage, police get called, police come out and say, get this animal out of the road or off the road so people aren’t stopping and looking at it–it’s more of a safety hazard. So they tend to pick up those bigger animals before we could actually–because, you know, we only did this twice a week before we could get to them.

SM You also mentioned screech owls. Do owls get hit by cars?

JV Yes. The eastern screech owl in Virginia gets hit a lot more than we thought. We had 43 owls get killed in one year, and most of those were in about a four to five month period between November and March.

SM Have you looked into why that might be the case? Do they swoop low to go after these mice?

JV Well that’s what we think is happening. Based on other studies like up in New York, it’s mostly probably juveniles that are being killed. So, chances are, if you’re an adult, you’ve already crossed this road once of twice and you survived so you know not to do it again or maybe there’s been close calls. But mostly there was juveniles we’re guessing.

SM To count the animals on the road that were killed by cars and trucks, did you collect the carcasses?

JV Oh, initially we were going to try to collect them. And you know we were talking about skunks initially, and I was thinking how in the world am I going to collect all these skunks in my car? My wife’s going to kill me. So, I mean, I was thinking, I could have a bike rack on top with a shovel and you know, I could just leave it up there. But we decided that really we didn’t want to change the layout of those animals along the road. Because some of those animals were drawing in predators to feed on them. So we didn’t want to change the dynamic. So what we decided to do was to just mark them. So we would do a white stripe of paint on either side of the animal so we didn’t double count, so we knew where it was at, what it was. And so, I kinda got known as, I got stopped at restaurants or gas stations saying, “Are you the guy that does all that striping–I had no idea what was happening for an entire year. All these dead animals are striped on either side.”

SM Oh my gosh, so you were spray painting the roadway where the carcasses were?

JV Yes, that’s correct. So, we were mostly just counting how many there were and identifying them to species, which is hard to do on some roadkills cause sometimes there’s not much left [laughs] unfortunately.

SM Did any shock you?

JV Yeah, I mean, we found more domestic animals that we expected like cats and dogs and, you know, initially it was like, “man we just found something that’s cool, we found an otter.” or something, or I would text my wife and say, “We found an otter!” And then I would say, “Oh man I just saw this beautiful golden retriever dead right in the middle of the road. And finally one day she said, “baby, stop texting me about dead animals, please, you are ruining my day.” [laughs]

SM [laughs] You know, growing up near water, I used to see turtles crossing the roads every day. And my family we’d stop and somebody would get out and move the big turtle across the street. I really don’t see that these days, and I wonder if we’ve decimated turtle populations just on our highways.

JV Well, they are a tier 3 species, the eastern box turtle is, it’s a tier 3 species, which is a high conservation need. We found 43 of those turtles dead on the road, which was way more than we expected. And it could very well be hindering their population growth.

SM Did you find a lot of animals that were hit but not dead?

JV We found a few animals that were hit and not dead. Of course, we’re just collecting a sample, so there’s probably many more animals that were hit and ran off and we never found them. But we did find a few animals that, when we walked up to them, they were still alive. I remember this raccoon one time, I walked up to it, I was getting ready to just reach over and paint on both sides of it and all of a sudden it came loose. It about scared me half to death, started to cross the road, cars were screeching, tires and stuff. It made it across the road. I mean, I don’t see how this animal’s still moving but he was.

SM Mhm. What were you trying to do–figure out whether animals were trying to cross the road at a certain site and therefore maybe come up with a more user friendly site of the creatures?

JV Initially, we just wanted to find out how many were being killed, what species was being killed, and then try to develop some sort of model to predict where those were happening so that we could then go in and try to make some changes to that area to try and make it easier for those animals to cross, maybe, you know, looking at calverts or underpasses, places where we could change the habitat or change the structure of the road. Cause this is an existing road. This road’s been there for a long time. Nothing major is probably going to happen. Most major constructions that you hear about putting overpasses over roads are done in new constructions. This is an old road, it’s been there a long time. We were just trying to figure out if there’s anything we could do to save some animals and to help, you know, with human safety.

SM Do you have any ideas–things you could do that are fairly simple techniques that might reduce the number of deaths?

JV Yeah, we’ve been thinking about that a lot because we saw so many animals dead on the road and what we’re kind of doing right now is trying to pinpoint where those hotspots were, of roadkill, and then we’re going to go in and look and see, “is there anything we can do, you know, something small that we can do, like maybe cut back some brush to allow them to enter into a culvert, maybe it’s grown over and so the animals literally can’t even grow into a culvert to cross the road, or maybe there’s lots of riprap rock that’s in the way, and so it’s not comfortable for the animals to go through a culvert or an underpass or something like that. So that’s our ideas initially because we’re not gonna be able to get lots–huge amounts of funding to retro-fit this road, so we’re gonna have to do small scale stuff. [music]

SM James Vance teaches mathematics and wildlife resources at the University of Virginia College at Wise. Major support for With Good Reason is provided by the law firm of McGuireWoods and by the University of Virginia Health System, a national cancer institute designated cancer center, researching and developing the treatments of tomorrow. With Good Reason is produced in Charlottesville by Virginia Humanities. Our production team is Allison Quantz, Matt Darroch, Allison Byrne, and Jamal Millner. We had production help Rosa Bad. Some of the music is by Blue Dot Sessions. For the podcast, go to I’m Sarah McConnell. Thanks for listening. [music]


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