By Christine Peterson, Wyoming Wildlife, December 1, 2019
The stress and tension were palpable. Dozens if not hundreds of antelope would bunch up between the fence and highway, panicking with each passing vehicle. They were all jockeying for a spot to crawl under the fence and dart across the highway.
Biologist Hall Sawyer spent years watching the phenomenon west of Pinedale at Trappers Point during fall and spring migrations. The research biologist for Western EcoSystems Technology Inc. said it was chaotic, confusing and dangerous — for animals and drivers. Wildlife died by the dozens.
But that was before fences built along the two-lane highway funneled animals to wildlife overpasses made of concrete and rebar covered with dirt and gravel. In the first three years after building six underpasses and two overpasses, antelope and deer crossed the highway more than 60,000 times. If not for the structures, that would have been 60,000 times an animal risked death by crossing the road – 60,000 times a vehicle could have crashed or swerved into the ditch to avoid a collision.
“You can see a sense of ease as they blow right over that overpass and not miss a beat,” said Sawyer.
People in Wyoming and across the West are starting to understand the importance of wildlife crossing structures.
A wildlife license plate bearing a regal mule deer buck in the prairie adorns more than a thousand cars. Proceeds from those help to fund roadway projects that support wildlife crossings. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Wyoming Department of Transportation prioritize finding creative solutions to prevent collisions with wildlife which sometimes includes building crossings. Nonprofits rally support to help pay for the structures and critical research.
Cost is still a concern — an overpass stretched over four lanes of interstate alone can run up to $7 million — but agencies, nonprofits, individuals and lawmakers are hopeful as they collaborate to save humans, protect wildlife and possibly reconnect ancient migrations.
Numbers add up
The results of overpasses and underpasses aren’t measured just in anecdotes, nor are the reasons behind building them.
WYDOT reports about 6,000 wildlife collisions per year. That number is probably an understatement, according to a report from Game and Fish and WYDOT called Wyoming Wildlife and Roadways Initiative a Road Map Forward.
“Many animals leave the road right of way before dying, and many carcasses are not picked up before decaying or being scavenged to the point of being difficult to remove,” the report stated.
The data also doesn’t include wildlife hit in national parks or carcasses such as bears, bighorn sheep or mountain goats that are collected by Game and Fish officials.
Even the most conservative number of about 2,200 collisions each year amounts to more than 15 percent of all reported vehicle collisions in Wyoming, depending on the year. Vehicles kill about 2 to 4 percent of the Cowboy State’s mule deer population annually.
This is a data-driven way of saying wildlife-vehicle collisions are a real problem in Wyoming and across the country, said Angi Bruce, Game and Fish deputy director.
Over and underpasses, placed in the right area, can reduce collisions by up to 90 percent.
Take Nugget Canyon as another example. About 130 mule deer used to die each year on the 12-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 30 near Kemmerer. The issue was bad enough the Wyoming Legislature passed a law in 1986 directing agencies to find a solution.
Biologists and highway officials tried various fixes, even building fences to force deer to cross in one place. Flashing lights were supposed to warn drivers, said Bill Rudd, former Game and Fish wildlife coordinator in the Green River region.
“They were killing almost as many deer after the fence was put in as they were before,” Rudd said. “They were just killing them all at that location.”
The first real fix came in the form of an underpass in 2001. When numbers showed it reduced deer collisions almost completely, officials and nongovernmental organizations found money for another six underpasses and miles of fencing funneling deer to those safe crossings.
Wildlife mortalities on the stretch ultimately dropped by more than 80 percent.
Nugget Canyon and Trappers Point are just the beginning, Bruce said.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and WYDOT each contributed $1.25 million to begin building six to eight underpasses in areas along U.S. Highway 189 south of Big Piney. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently awarded a $14.5 million federal grant to WYDOT for the project, marking the first time wildlife projects have risen to the attention for this federal award. The grant is the first of its kind to focus on wildlife connectivity and roadways. After Nugget Canyon, this area has one of the highest mule deer collision rates in the state. About 120 deer are hit each year as the Wyoming Range mule deer herd migrates and winters in wide, open sagebrush. The project will take years to be completed. It is being split in multiple phases with phase one focusing on two key underpasses.
Plans for the rest of the state are also well underway.
In 2017, about 130 people from Game and Fish, WYDOT, federal agencies, nonprofits, the University of Wyoming and members of the public joined to formally address the collision crisis, put data to the problem and arrive at a locally-driven, science-based consensus for what projects needed to be done in the future.
The list, which was further refined over the following months, contains about 240 possibilities, narrowed down to 43 top projects and another 10 that are most urgent and have a clear opportunities for partnerships.
“If a road is being reconstructed somewhere,” Bruce said. “We want to jump on that.”
Over and underpasses sound like a miracle cure for wildlife deaths, but they aren’t cheap.
A box culvert underpass usually runs about $675,000 to $950,000, with another $200,000 per mile in 8-foot fencing on either side to make sure the creatures actually use the underpass. A complete overpass project with multiple crossings can cost as much as $30 million.
But they also save the state and its residents millions.
Of Wyoming’s recorded wildlife collisions, about 87 percent were mule deer, 7 percent were pronghorn, 4 percent were elk, 1 percent were moose and a fraction of the last remaining 1 percent were bison, bighorn sheep and mountain goats.
The average deer-vehicle crash costs about $11,600 due to damage to driver property and injury.
Deer collisions alone between 2013 and 2015 amounted to almost $30 million in injuries and damage to vehicles, not to mention an additional $20 million to $23 million in wildlife costs lost to the state.
“And we can’t put a value on human life, or at least I can’t,” Bruce said. “The underpasses at Dry Piney, for example, can pay for themselves in a short time when you think a 75-year life span for the structure itself.”
While WYDOT and Game and Fish officials all said they prioritize highway crossings, neither have a large enough pot of money to pay for them.
WYDOT’s first step is to compare proposed wildlife projects with highway repair needs.
U.S. Highway 89 south of Jackson, for example, was already being widened to five lanes. So, WYDOT lengthened bridges and added underpasses to ease deer and elk migrations, said Shelby Carlson, WYDOT’s chief engineer.
WYDOT applies for federal one-time grants and matching grants. It also uses some internal money, as does Game and Fish.
The Wyoming Legislature approved a new license plate in 2018 that costs $180 per plate and another $50 each year in registration fees. As of early October, sales of the plates raised almost $170,000 — a figure that increases almost daily, Carlson said. Some businesses, like Casper’s ITC Electrical Technologies, purchased them for an entire fleet.
Nonprofits like the Muley Fanatic Foundation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Wyoming Wildlife Federation and The Nature Conservancy contribute tens of thousands of dollars or help raise awareness in communities. The Wyoming Natural Resource Trust and the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service offer money for fencing and potential easements for access. Individual donors also offer money and access.
Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. John Barrasso is moving a draft transportation bill through Congress that would include a provision for federally-funded wildlife crossings.
“This issue is really ramping up not only within Wyoming but nationwide,” Carlson said. “There’s momentum in Wyoming right now that we need to continue to leverage.”
While one of the best solutions, over and underpasses aren’t always the most practical answer.
Some places have topography that doesn’t allow for that kind of infrastructure. In other places, surrounding houses and driveways make the kind of fencing required to funnel wildlife almost impossible. Some areas, like around Dubois, wildlife tend to cross back and forth throughout the day at various places. So building over or underpasses could potentially disrupt their daily movements as much or more than the highway already does.
Other solutions, though, aren’t always as effective.
Corinna Riginos has spent the past six years studying wildlife crossings and migration, most recently with The Nature Conservancy.
She’s documented how reflectors intended to deter deer don’t work — though it’s possible the white canvas bags covering the reflectors during a control test might help. Those diamond-shaped signs with a jumping deer on them make little-to-no difference.
Recently she completed a two-year study for WYDOT showing that when speed limits are posted as 70 mph during the day and 55 mph at night, the average driver only slows down between three and five mph.
“Perhaps the most effective thing we can do, but it’s going to be the most difficult thing to actually effect, is changing motorist driver behavior and getting people to slow down,” said Daryl Lutz, Game and Fish regional wildlife coordinator in the Lander region.
The amount of time lost on dropping from 70 to 55 mph is minimal, he said, and prevents collisions.
That Dubois stretch, for example, is about 25 miles long. If people slowed down by 15 mph they would only lose about six minutes.
Posted nighttime speed limits are tricky to enforce, particularly during dawn and dusk, because nighttime is subjective, Lutz said. WYDOT recently installed permanent dual speed limit signs outside Cody similar to those on Interstate 80 and could use them in other places. But even with a posted, legally-enforceable speed limit, Wyoming would likely need to increase law enforcement presence to truly change behavior, Riginos said.
Eliminating unneeded vegetation on the roadway can also help keep animals out of the rights of way and increase motorist visibility, but this adds to the habitat loss associated with highways.
Other options such as flashing signs with warnings about migrating animals may work when the message changes frequently and the signs are moved, Riginos said, but clear data on their effectiveness is still lacking.
Restoring ancient migrations
In all of the discussion of human and animal safety, one message that’s often lost is the impact of severed migrations on herds.
No one knows exactly how far some herds migrated before roadways like interstates 80 and 25 were built, but radio collar data shows deer, elk and pronghorn still struggle with the barriers.
“You can see it looks like a brick wall,” Bruce said. “You have all the collaring GPS points come up to a road and bunch up and not go farther. That tells us a lot.”
The negative impact of losing quality habitat is difficult to quantify, but if wildlife could migrate effectively from their ideal winter to ideal summer ranges as they did for millennia before European settlement, herds would be healthier and more robust, Riginos said.
Not every road completely severs migration. But most four-lane divided highways are essentially impenetrable, as are any with high traffic volume.
Riginos recently completed a project using thermal video cameras. It showed deer need at least 30 seconds in between consecutive vehicles to attempt to cross a highway safely. Less time leads to inevitable collisions.
Lutz, Riginos and other Wyoming biologists have dreamed of restoring those ancient migrations, particularly over Interstate 80.
“That would be the crown jewel of our efforts to get wildlife crossings,” Lutz said. “It stands to reason if we could reestablish them and make more habitat available that can only be, in my opinion, a good thing.”
And then perhaps any of those hundreds of thousands of travelers winding back and forth down Interstate 80 each year will feel the same sense of ease Hall Sawyer felt years ago at Trappers Point as herds safely crossed to their original range.
— Christine Peterson has spent nearly a decade writing about Wyoming’s fish, wildlife, outdoors and environment. She now works from her home in Laramie.