Mule Deer, Elk and Western Big Game Hunting -

What have our highways done to our deer herds?
By: Todd Sullivan

The truck headlights illuminate another lifeless deer on the highway, only this one is more noticeable as the light reflects the massive rack of a huge 4-point buck. As you swerve to avoid it, you contemplate the waste and the life of this deer. Maybe you could have been the one to harvest it this hunting season, instead of heading home empty handed. Unfortunately, another, less caring type of hunter has killed this deer--a passing motor vehicle. Yes, thousands of Utah's deer are killed each year on our highways, freeways, and even on residential roads by cars and trucks like ours.

In Utah and other western states, deer-vehicle collisions (DVCs) occur most frequently in spring and fall when deer migrate to and from/or occupy winter ranges at the lower elevations throughout the state. Highways are being continually upgraded and expanded into deer habitat in order to accommodate increasing traffic demands and increased motor vehicles. Roads fragment the habitat and can make migration and dispersal of mule deer difficult. In fact, some mule deer populations may be adversely impacted by DVCs and road construction. Unfortunately, all too often, the issue of wildlife vehicle collisions is viewed as just an incidental taking of animals. In reality, DVCs are not just costly accidents; they are often lost hunting opportunities and lose of genetic diversity as well.
Deer-vehicle collisions have increased significantly in the United States since 1980 estimates indicate 1.5 million DVCs occur annually. More than 90% of deer involved in vehicle collisions die from their injuries. According to Terry Messmer, Extension Wildlife Specialist at Utah State University, approximately 10,000 DVCs occur in Utah each year even though state traffic accident records report, on average, only 2,200. Nationally, DVCs result in approximately 29,000 human injuries and 211 human fatalities annually. Estimated damage to vehicles exceeds $1.1 billion, with the average repair bill around $1,577 per vehicle. And, these figures will likely increase as vehicles become more costly to repair.

Valuing the economic resource losses associated with deer-vehicle collisions is difficult because society, and not individuals, own the wildlife. Hunter expenditures are one way of placing a monetary value on wildlife. In 1985, a single deer had a monetary value of $1006. Adjusting this value with inflation would be equivalent to $2,813 per deer in 2000, and nationally, represents a potential lost opportunity value of $4.2 billion per year. With this information, hunters can better perceive not only the staggering economic losses, but also the hundreds of lost hunting opportunities that result from DVCs.

A variety of techniques have been used to mitigate the impact highways have on wildlife and to reduce DVCs. These methods can be generally categorized as 1) highway fencing, 2) animal corridors (underpasses and overpasses), 3) deer behavior modification, and 4) motorist behavior modification. Unfortunately, few states conduct any scientific evaluation of these mitigation techniques to determine their true effectiveness.

For years, state wildlife agencies have promoted increasing healthy deer populations, while at the same time, departments of transportation have been building more highways. We have now reached a point where these activities have negative consequences on each other. The time has come for us all to recognize our responsibility in reducing DVCs. Where we go from here depends on our willingness to change our individual attitudes and behaviors. Communication is the first small step towards working together for the common goal of reducing DVCs.

You might be asking yourself; what can I do about this problem? There are several examples of average sportsman/citizens making a difference. In Wells, Nevada, concerned citizens including members of the Mule Deer Foundation, Nevada Division of Wildlife and Nevada Department of Transportation recognized a problem on Pequop Summit (Hwy 80) and had some large warning signs with flashing lights signs installed. In this instance, pressures from the public influenced agency decisions and caused change. In Bluffdale, Utah, Scoutmaster Tracy Bronson and his Boy Scout troop painted plywood-warning signs that were fastened to metal posts. These signs got the attention of Utah's Department of Transportation and were subsequently removed because they did not "meet code". However, many people saw the benefit of these signs and with support from the Utah Department of Transportation and Utah State University, standardized signs were produced and installed.

By becoming a proactive sportsman, you can make a difference and help conserve our mule deer resource. You can call your congressional representative, governor, game and fish commissions, local biologist, or department of transportation and voice your concern. Tell them you want something done. Don't be afraid to go right to the very top. After all, government officials are your public servants.

You can also join conservation groups like the Mule Deer Foundation and develop projects that address the issue of DVCs. Keep records of those DVCs you come across so you are better able to prove there is a problem. Work with your local agencies to solve local problems. Get involved. Ultimately, the squeaky wheel will get the grease.

About the author: Todd Sullivan is currently a graduate student at Utah State University working on ways to reduce deer-vehicle collisions. His interests include private land and public wildlife issues, and pursuing trophy blacktail deer. Originally from northern California, Todd currently resides in Logan, Utah, with his wife and two daughters.

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