More deer, more traffic mean more collisions | AspenTimes.com

More deer, more traffic mean more collisions

Some observers say there have been more collisions than usual between vehicles and big game on Highway 82 this fall. Others don’t believe conditions are out of the ordinary.

Only one thing seems certain ” conditions will become more treacherous for animals and motorists as winter conditions force elk and more deer out of the high country to the valley floor.

Tuesday night brought the first significant snowfall in about a month. Until then, large numbers of elk were staying at higher elevations, said Kelly Wood, the state wildlife manager for the Basalt district. Green grass still was available for animals up high, so they stayed put, she said.

The potential for collisions with vehicles will probably get worse when the elk herds move to lower elevations, Wood said.

She is among the camp that doesn’t believe the amount of roadkill is above average so far this fall. Maintenance workers for the Colorado Department of Transportation in the Highway 82 corridor also believe the numbers of carcasses they see ” and, sometimes, must remove from the roadways ” is about average, according to agency spokeswoman Nancy Shanks.

But some drivers, who are regularly on the road, have reported seeing more carnage than usual.

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Jeff Lumsden, a patrol supervisor with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, said he has witnessed a “dramatic increase” in the amount of vehicle collisions with wildlife. He sent out a memo to patrol staff this week warning them to keep their eyes peeled for deer and elk, particularly at night. He saw big game on various roadways each night recently while working a week of late shifts. He had two close calls with deer while patrolling country roads on which he only was traveling 25 mph.

Deputies have been getting calls nearly every night to help motorists after a collision with wildlife, he said. Often it involves shooting the wounded animals.

One driver reported related his tragic experience of hitting a deer while driving upvalley on Highway 82 at Gerbazdale. He said he was going at or below the speed limit and keeping his eyes open for animals shortly after dusk on Nov. 17. He took evasive action when a deer ran into the highway, but couldn’t avoid clobbering a second animal that darted in front of him. He called authorities and watched as a deputy had to shoot an injured deer flailing on the shoulder of the road.

Roadkill is a common sight along the shoulders of Highway 82 on many mornings.

Lumsden speculated that a combination of increased deer populations and higher traffic volumes is responsible for increased collisions.

Once upon a time, the longtime deputy sheriff noted, very few vehicles were driving Highway 82 late at night and early in the morning. That’s changed. The CDOT website shows the annual average daily traffic was 20,000 vehicles on Highway 82 at El Jebel in 2006. No historical data could be immediately located.

The high traffic volume is almost like running the deer into a chain saw, Lumsden said.

“There’s always a tooth coming at them,” he said. “The animals are around, but it’s traffic volume that’s causing the conflicts, I think.”

The wildlife division limited hunting and took other actions to help deer populations recover early this decade after numbers in some parts of the state mysteriously plummeted. The wildlife division’s web site said there are an estimated 700,000 deer statewide, but no information was immediately available on how numbers have changed in recent years.

Lumsden said it appears the recovery has been successful in the Roaring Fork Valley. “There’s a dramatic number of deer, like you used to see in the old days,” he said.

And those deer are stirring at this time of year. Most irrigation ditches were shut off at the beginning of November. That coincides with the rut, when bucks single-mindedly pursue does.

“The deer population has increased, the concentration of the animals has changed because of their need for water, and they’re in the rut,” Lumsden said. All those factors create the potential for conflicts with cars.

Wood agreed that rutting season can affect deer behavior. “They’re not as wary of vehicles,” she said.

Unfortunately, there is no recent data on vehicle collisions with wildlife. The Colorado State Patrol reported that 35,302 collisions on state and interstate highways were documented between 1986 and 2004. Other accidents go unreported. No more recent data is available.

Data shows that the number of collision spike during two periods ” one being late-October to mid-November, said Monique DiGiorgio, director of development for an organization called the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project. The group is working with CDOT on projects designed to improve safety for wildlife and motorists.

Research by the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project identified Highway 82 as one of eight roadways or sections in the state that was “extremely hazardous” for motorists and wildlife for collisions. More information on its findings can be found at http://www.restoretherockies.org/on_the_move.htm.

The organization has more than 40 cameras installed along I-70 between Copper Mountain and Vail to study wildlife behavior. The organization wants to use the data to select the best places for special wildlife crossings. While the information is being collected along I-70, it could yield results that help on other roadways, DiGiorgio said.

Meanwhile, officials said there are steps motorists can take to decrease the chances of collisions. “Slow down,” said wildlife division spokesman Randy Hampton. “Highway 82 is the highway number, not the speed limit.”

The wildlife agency doesn’t support placing “giant fences” the length of the valley to prevent deer and other wildlife from getting onto the road, he said.

CDOT identified the Aspen Glen section of Highway 82 as particularly nasty for collisions. It plans to install additional wildlife fencing along that stretch. Wildlife underpasses were also part of the design for the expanded Highway 82 in Emma and Snowmass Canyon. Shanks said new signs went up this fall warning drivers of a trouble spot on the highway by Wildcat Ranch.

Hampton said motorists have to take some responsibility for avoiding accidents with wildlife. “People scream for solutions at 80 miles per hour,” he said.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.