Published in the Standard Journal, August 19, 2019
Kudos to the US Forest Service, if they are going to spend $25,000 to study wildlife vehicle collisions (WVCs) in the Island Park area. Highway 20 ‘Y’ bisects the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in Island Park, so it’s smart for USFS and the Idaho Transportation Department. Of course they would want to better understand how WVCs are contributing to road hazards here. Every one knows that WVCs are largely under reported in the area because studies rely on the general public to report them to Idaho Fish and Game. I have yet to encounter a friend that has reported roadkill. When they describe an animal killed on the Highway at a particular spot, I ask them if they reported it to IDFG, the usual reply is “someone else will.” When we all think that, no one does. That’s why they are under-reported.
The last time ITD sponsored a study in Island Park was 2011-13 when a graduate student used a grant to study areas where wildlife cross the road in Island Park to see if there were any frequently used spots (“hot spots”) where crossings were high. He used collared elk and moose, followed by studying animal tracks to determine where frequent crossings occurred. As it turned out, these were also the spots where most of the large mammals were also hit by vehicles, according to the sparse data collected by IDFG. One of these hot spots was exactly where a driver stopped for a crossing group of elk just south of Last Chance last year, and was hit by an oncoming driver who had run into the herd and veered into the oncoming lane where drivers were stopped to let them pass. This driver lost his vehicle, his drift boat and trailer, as well as being seriously injured, which prevented his return to work for months and months. He was lucky to be alive. An average encounter with a mule deer can cost you $9,000 or more in repairs.
Nothing in that study looked at the number of animals hit, only where they were being hit. No one really knows. The USFS is stepping up to help us all understand, including ITD, how many animals are hit by vehicles. ITD uses this kind of information in other parts of Idaho to design safer roads in places where there are lots of wildlife. Other states with similar wildlife populations do it too. It’s more than designing a road for the landscape and the traffic patterns, but the road hazards as well. That includes the likelihood that a driver will encounter an animal on the roadway. We live in such a place.
ITD is trying to build safer roads for you and me. We all know that it’s dangerous driving up here, especially from dusk through to dawn hours. Many people don’t even go out at night due to the increased hazards, although animals can be encountered on the roads at all hours of the day and night, and months of the year.
What’s all the fuss? Don’t you want to feel secure that you are traveling on roads that are up to the same safety standards that are used elsewhere in Idaho and the rest of the United States? Don’t you want to reduce your risk of totaling your vehicle by hitting a large animal? Don’t you want to reduce your chance of being seriously injured or killed in a WVC? Any reasonable person would say yes. The USFS can study all they want. Good for them. We should applaud their efforts to pass information on to the road design process incorporated in all ITD projects.
Mary Van Fleet is an Island Park resident who has a long career in health care as a pharmacist and mid-level manager. She is an avid conservation resource volunteer for habitat work, water quality monitoring, migratory bird counts, animal migration studies, educational programming, and more. She sits on a homeowner association Board and the Henrys Lake Foundation Board and belongs to many resource conservation organizations that work locally in our community. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.