Officials look to mitigate vehicle-wildlife collisions

A portion of the above map, provided by the University of Wyoming and University of Oregon, shows in red the high priorities for action concerning wildlife migration in order to mitigate collissions and deaths. (COURTESY IMAGE/The Nature Conservancy and WYDOT)

Highway 189 south of Kemmerer is one of 40 high-priority sites designated for action by the Wyoming Wildlife and Roadways Initiative due to the large number of vehicle-wildlife collisions occurring annually. 

Corinna Riginos, with the Nature Conservancy, spoke about the initiative at the recent Wyoming BioBlitz. Riginos said there are two key issues involved when looking at wildlife and roadways. The first is the large number of animals hit by vehicles, with more than 6,000 deer, pronghorn, elk and moose hit by vehicles each year in Wyoming, with resulting damages at a cost of nearly $50 million. The average damage from a single collision reaches approximately $10,000 when factoring in damage to vehicles, human injury and loss of wildlife. 

The second issue is that roadways serve as a barrier to animal movements, impacting migration routes and access to necessary food and habitat. 

On Hwy. 189, both issues converge. Not only are there an average of 80 deer-vehicle collisions at a cost of more than $450,000 annually, but the road and fencing negatively impact mule deer herd and pronghorn movements in a priority Wyoming range. 

Riginos said there are solutions to the problem, including crossing structures such as bridges and tunnels, which can be between 80-90 percent effective in reducing collisions. 

Several wildlife underpasses have been constructed in Nugget Canyon west of Kemmerer, with massive reductions in the number of collisions and thousands of deer, pronghorn and elk making use of the crossings annually. Riginos pointed out that it is rare when speaking of conservation efforts to find a solution that is beneficial to both people and wildlife; however, the costs associated with crossing structures can be enormous, ranging from about $1 million to more than $2 million apiece. 

In collaboration between the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) and the Wyoming Game & Fish, studies have been undertaken to pinpoint other high-priority locations throughout the state, at which there are a large number of collisions each year. 

Studies have also been undertaken to look at other possible solutions. Potential solutions that have been considered include speed-limit reductions, especially at night and/or in winter; however, Riginos said those have been shown thus far to be unsuccessful because, although drivers slow down somewhat, they tend not to slow down to the extent necessary to avoid collisions. 

One such study involved the use of wildlife warning reflectors developed in Europe, designed so that vehicle headlights hit them and cause a beam to be cast perpendicular to the road, hypothetically serving as a warning to wildlife. Riginos said WYDOT conducted experiments on the efficacy of the reflectors, during which researchers documented collisions while the reflectors were in use compared to collisions when the reflectors were covered over with bags. Interestingly, the results showed the bags covering the reflectors were actually more effective in reducing collisions, for reasons unknown. Riginos said that quite surprisingly, there was a more than 60-percent drop in the number of dead animals on the roadways when the bags were covering the reflectors. With a chuckle, she said, “Perhaps there is a cheap solution after all.” 

Riginos said statewide agencies will continue to research and work on the problem and reminded residents there is now a wildlife conservation license plate option available in Wyoming, and monies raised through the sale of those plates goes toward constructing wildlife crossings. 

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