Roadkill: traffic in conflict with wildlife
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
It wasn’t hitting a deer on Midland Avenue near her home that disturbed Julia Novy the most ” it was watching the wild animal die.
“It was horrible,” Novy said. “I just had to sit there and watch.”
Novy’s experience was a little out of the ordinary for wildlife-vehicle collisions in the Roaring Fork Valley. Her accident happened about 10:30 a.m. as she traveled around 25 mph on Midland Avenue. Her vehicle wasn’t even damaged too badly. But she still hit the animal with enough force to end its life.
It’s something that still troubles her.
“It was in broad daylight,” she said. “It literally just stepped out in front of me. It hit me so hard that I killed it.”
She’s was thankful that her kids weren’t in the car with her to witness it.
Novy’s friend Andi Johnson, a resident of the Missouri Heights subdivision, and nine-year resident of the valley, doesn’t understand why more isn’t being done to fix the problem.
“I am so angry that nothing is being done about it,” Johnson said. “I’ve tried for nine years, but nothing is being done. It’s all talk and no action.”
But there isn’t a quick fix to this problem, according to Randy Hampton of the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Novy’s accident happened on a speed-restricted side street in Glenwood Springs; the outcome could have been much worse had she been traveling 55 or 65 mph on Highway 82.
She could have been injured as well.
When the winter winds cool the valley, herds of deer and elk migrate from higher summer habitats to lower valley floors for the winter range. There are also fewer hours of daylight, and when people begin the commute in the morning and evening, it’s typically dark, and the animals are active.
“That is when we see a higher number of accidents,” Hampton said. “The highways make the movement of the herds more challenging when they are migrating to winter range.”
Highways are unnatural barriers for wildlife. Herds will cross whatever they need to in order to get to the food source for the winter. It’s a matter of survival. It’s what the animals did long before the highways and roads were built.
But a lot of people don’t understand the patterns of wildlife and the role the DOW plays in protecting it.
“In terms of migration, we come in and put in highways that disrupt the migratory routes of the herds. What’s going to change when we disrupt those routes? Where herds go to winter?” Hampton said. “Then you throw development on top of that and you decrease the elk’s winter range, and people wonder why there are so many accidents.”
The problem is less a wildlife management issue and more a public safety concern for the DOW, according to Hampton. He said the DOW certainly wants to be a part of the solution to reduce the number of collisions, but it’s up to motorists to do their part, too.
“Eighty-two is the number of the highway, not the speed limit,” Hampton said.
Even with the high number of wildlife-vehicle collisions on the highway, and around the state, Hampton said it’s relatively minor in relation to the size of the population. The White River National Forest is home to the largest elk herd in North America.
“Because the population is so huge, roadkill is a small factor in terms of the herd,” Hampton said. “It’s really a public safety issue more than anything.”
CDOT senior foreman D’Wayne Gaymon, who patrols Section 2 on Highway 82 out of Grand Junction, said he’s cleaned up his share of elk and deer carcasses from Glenwood to Aspen.
“The worst thing you see, if not cleaned up in a timely manner, they can get pretty stinky,” Gaymon said. “The longer they are there, the worse they smell.”
CDOT crews clean up the carcasses along the highway, most often when they’re reported by commuters or if the animal is obstructing traffic. The DOW doesn’t respond to accidents unless the animal needs to be put out of its misery. Wildlife officers don’t clean up carcasses themselves and encourage them to be left alone, as long as it’s off the highway.
“The carcass provides food for the other critters in the area,” Hampton said. “The clean and sanitary option goes contrary to what is beneficial to other wildlife like birds, foxes and other critters.”
The DOW often will provide locations for dumping some of the dead animals. The others CDOT picks up and takes to a landfill where they are discarded.
Gaymon doesn’t enjoy scraping animals off the asphalt, but somebody has to do it.
“Nobody likes to see them on the side of the road,” Gaymon said. “We don’t want people to hit them, and we don’t want people to see them, so we try to get them out of the way.”
It’s early season still, and Gaymon knows he’s not seen the end of the blood this year.
“It’s just the beginning ” the big herds are still coming down,” he said. “I think there will be more. There will be more.”
Gaymon said that CDOT does everything it can, within its budget, to make traveling safe along the highway. The main concern, like the DOW’s, is motorist safety.
“Every animal we can save is important, but we like to save human life, too,” Gaymon said.
Wildlife signs ” the yellow and black diamonds picturing leaping deer ” and portable message signs with bright flashing yellow lights warn motorists of wildlife on the road. Since implementation of the portable message signs a few years ago, Gaymon said, he’s seen a decrease in accidents.
Hampton agreed that CDOT does a great job warning people and said he appreciates the work the agency does.
“Those wildlife signs exist for a reason,” Hampton said. “They are not placed at random, they are placed where we know wildlife is known to cross the road.”
But neither CDOT nor the DOW, with all their efforts, can make drivers pay attention.
“We try to get people to slow down, but the road goes through the migration route, and wildlife is going to be in the area,” Gaymon said. “I realize seeing the same sign every day, people can get lethargic. But in reality, the animals are out there, and they are going to be out there until spring.”
Stretches of wildlife fencing have been installed in high-activity sections of highways across the state to keep the herds away. But there are always a few that manage to get around it; it’s impossible to keep them all behind the line.
“There is only so much we can do,” Gaymon said. “In the worst areas, we try to get a fence in place or we try to use one of the other methods to warn motorists. I wish there was more we could do.”
Fencing isn’t the solution, Hampton said.
“People think if we put the fencing up all along 82 it will protect the people and problem solved. But it’s not that easy,” Hampton said. “You end up trapping the animals in an area where the habitat won’t support them.”
Hampton added that the DOW would “aggressively oppose” fencing off all roads, especially Highway 82.
“It’s not healthy for the herds,” he said. “If they can’t migrate, the numbers will dwindle.”
Either way, the herds are losing ground. And either way, by vehicle, hunting, fencing or development, a number of animals will lose their lives each year in the name of human preservation.
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An inspirational piece of 20th century artist Herbert Bayer is being installed on the staircase next to Aspen City Hall by his granddaughter, Koko.