Critter collisions are on the rise
Report: Idaho’s wildlife collisions jumped 31 percent in five years
by Jason D.B. Kauffman, Idaho Mountain Express, Oct. 2008
The next time you take a drive down a road in Blaine County you may want to remember that you’re sharing the blacktop with travelers of a different sort.
No, not just your fellow motorists. Rather, these are the furry vagabonds that—if you’re lucky—you’ll notice poised along the roadside in a patch of brush or behind a dense conifer tree. It doesn’t help that their sudden sprints across roadways seem to happen most when it’s hardest to see, between dusk and daybreak.
These collisions of racing steel and scampering fur happen far more often than you might expect.
According to a nationwide State Farm Insurance report released last week, an Idaho motorist has a 1-in-273 chance during the next year of colliding with a deer or other species of big game. The report also notes that that the number of collisions with wildlife in Idaho has increased by 31.2 percent in the past five years.
That compares to a nationwide average increase of just 14.9 percent during the same five-year period.
For states surrounding Idaho, the rate of wildlife-vehicle has risen steeply over the past five years. In Wyoming and Montana, the number of collisions has increased by 36.1 percent and 32.2 percent, respectively. In Washington, they have climbed by 15.1 percent. But in Oregon, where the interstate highway speed limit is among the lowest in the nation, at 65 miles per hour, the rate of critter-car collisions has risen only 1.8 percent in the last five years.
State Farm used its wildlife claims data from the latter half of 2007 and the first half of 2008, as well as Federal Highway Administration motor vehicle registration counts, to estimate the chances of a vehicle colliding with species like deer, elk or moose during the next 12 months.
According to the information, the state of West Virginia, home to a huge population of whitetail deer, had the highest probability of a deer-vehicle collision in the nation for the second year in a row. The state where deer-vehicle collisions are least likely continues to be Hawaii, home to introduced populations of deer and other ungulates.
Nationwide, average cost of vehicle damage from these incidents was just over $2,950, up 2.5 percent from a year ago.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there are approximately 1.5 million vehicle collisions with large wildlife annually in the United States. Each year, these violent encounters cause more than 150 human fatalities and about $1.1 billion in property damage.
“The combination of growing deer populations and the displacement of deer habitat caused by urban sprawl are producing increasingly hazardous conditions for motorists and deer,” the State Farm report states.
Autumn is the worst season for the incidents. That’s when deer, elk and other ungulates are in the midst of their mating season and are migrating from their upper-elevation summer ranges to lower winter ranges.
“That brings them down across the highways,” said Randy Smith, wildlife manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Magic Valley Region.
In many areas with large populations of wildlife across the nation, including in the Wood River Valley, highway planners are beginning to consider the needs of wildlife.
The fixes range from highly expensive to fairly cost-efficient. In some areas, planners have recommended costly wildlife underpasses and overpasses. These kinds of structures have been successfully installed in places like U.S. Highway 93 northwest of Missoula, Mont., and Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
At the more cost-efficient side of things, highway officials have begun to experiment with high-tech wildlife detection systems to warn travelers that a deer or elk may be crossing ahead of them. Such a system has been recommended for a stretch of state Highway 75 north of Hailey.
The recommendation is the result of a study conducted by the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University in Bozeman between 2007 and 2008 that looked at ways of reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions in Blaine County.
Based on local roadkill data gathered by the study’s authors, a minimum of 134 collisions with deer and elk occurred in the 26-mile study area between Timmerman Junction and Ketchum in 2007.
The study found that most collisions occurred during the early morning and evening hours, which are also the busiest traffic hours along Highway 75. It found that most live and dead deer and elk were seen along the stretch of road from the north end of Hailey to just north of Elkhorn Road. The highest concentration of wildlife-vehicle collisions involving deer and elk was in an approximately one-mile stretch just south of Deer Creek Road.
Elk are commonly viewed by passing motorists in this area during the winter as they cross the highway from west to east to access open grazing in the Peregrine Ranch area.
The wildlife detection systems considered for Highway 75 use an energy beam, either microwave or infrared, which when interrupted by an approaching animal sends a signal that activates a blinking light to warn motorists. These systems are often combined with animal fencing to guide wildlife to select crossing points.
In Switzerland, similar systems have been shown to have a success rate of around 82 percent, said Montana field biologist Angela Kociolek, who works with the Western Transportation Institute.
Fish and Game and ITD recently created a database of the worst highway crossing points for wildlife. Highway 75 and U.S. Highway 20 stand out as roads with high incidents of wildlife collisions, Smith said. He said that in the future, the database will allow Idaho highway officials to use wildlife-friendly measures when designing roadway improvement projects.
“I’m glad we’re starting to see that,” he said.
But last year’s loss of funding for a proposed Highway 75 widening project in the Wood River Valley, which could have included wildlife mitigation measures, likely means that the detection system won’t be installed for the time being, Blaine County Commissioner Tom Bowman said. Cutbacks in statewide highway funding in the past few years have meant that the limited reconstruction funds have been funneled to projects deemed more pressing in northern Idaho and around Boise and Twin Falls.
Simply lowering speed limits on key stretches of Highway 75 won’t solve the problem because commuters are already driving slowly during the worst hours, Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said last spring.
“There’s just a lot of cars out there,” he said.
In the near term, easier fixes may be in order. Peregrine ranch owner Harry Rinker recently had crews remove trees from the large earthen berm that stands in front of the ranch adjacent to Highway 75. The trees made viewing wildlife more difficult along that stretch of the highway, said Picabo resident Nick Purdy, who has represented Rinker at public meetings.
Purdy said all trees within 60 feet of the centerline of the highway have been removed. The trees were taken out to give drivers more sight distance “so they can see elk before they jump out onto the highway,” he said. “Mr. Rinker decided to do it as a responsible action for safety.”
Avoiding wildlife on Idaho’s roads
Here are some tips for how to avoid hitting critters:
• Be aware of posted wildlife crossing signs. These are placed in active wildlife crossing areas.
• Remember that deer, elk and other ungulates are most active between 6 and 9 p.m.
• Use high beam headlamps as much as possible to illuminate the areas where wildlife enter roadways.
• Keep in mind that deer and other ungulates generally travel in herds. If you spot one, others may be nearby.
• Do not rely on car-mounted deer whistles. They don’t work.
• If a collision with a deer or elk seems unavoidable, do not attempt to swerve out of the way. Doing so can cause you to lose control of your vehicle or place you in the path of an oncoming vehicle.