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Scientists Discover Unlikely Solution To Wildlife-Vehicle Collisions

Corinna Riginos

Mountain West states like Wyoming and Montana are high risk for wildlife-vehicle collisions. These accidents result in expensive damages and sometimes even death for both wildlife and drivers. One group of scientists found an unlikely solution.

Sinks Canyon Road in southwestern Wyoming is one of the state’s hotspots for wildlife-vehicle collisions. The canyon is a corridor to the Wind River Mountain Range for animals and the road winds up steep hills and tight corners.

There weren't any deer or other big game on the drive to meet conservation scientist Corinna Riginos. But she said that may have been because of the time of day.

"Dusk and dawn, particularly dusk, I think is when the most collisions occur," said Riginos. "Deer tend to be active at that time, and you also tend to have more cars on the road. So if you think about the dead middle of the night, you have a lot of deer activity, but not that many cars."

You’ve probably driven by one before and not noticed it, but wildlife reflectors are poles on the side of the road.

"Which are intended to flash when headlights hit them and warn deer that the car is coming and to make the deer stop and be more cautious about crossing the road," said Riginos.

And there have been a lot of studies on reflectors, but Riginos said the results are mixed and not very impressive.

So the Wyoming Department of Transportation asked Riginos to lead a group of scientists and figure out whether or not the reflectors were actually keeping animals off the road.

So Riginos and her team developed an experiment. They’d cover up some reflectors, leave others uncovered, and then compare the results.

"We covered them with this cheap, easily available and durable material, which just happened to be white canvas bags," Riginos said.

And to their surprise—the bags turned out to be more effective than the reflectors. Riginos said they used thermal video footage to look at how the deer were behaving.

"We could actually see that in the white bags situation, that the deer were more likely to stop and wait for cars to pass before crossing the road, instead of just running headlong into the road," said Riginos.

They also looked at the total number of deer hit by cars under the two different conditions and the white bags prevailed. Riginos said the reflection of headlights on the bags might have simply startled the deer and alerted them to the cars.

"It’s also possible that that looked to them like their rump patch," said Riginos. "A lot of times raise their tail and show a white rump as a warning sign of a predator or other danger."

Finding solutions like this are important. Drivers in Wyoming have a one in 79 chance of hitting wildlife.

Jon Oman with State Farm Insurance said hitting a deer with your car is one problem.

"But sometimes we end up seeing a bigger safety issue by folks being almost prideful about not hitting that deer, that elk or that moose, and then, of course, they go off the road, they roll their vehicle, or hit an icy patch or something," said Oman.

Oman said not only are these accidents dangerous, they’re expensive, too.

"The average deer hit, the average elk hit, if you will, the average moose hit, State Farm is roughly paying out an average of 5,325 dollars per claim," said Oman.

According to the Wyoming Department of Transportation, there are about 6,000 big game vehicle collisions every year. Oman said that high number could be because of the large volume of wildlife, especially deer. Wyoming also has a higher speed limit than a lot of states. The same is true for Montana, where drivers have a one in 57 chance of hitting wildlife.

Both states have incorporated what Corinna Riginos said is the best prevention tool.

"The gold-standard is underpasses or overpasses, or both, with plenty of fencing on either side so that the animals have to go and cross the road at those under and overpasses. And those are 80 to 90 percent effective consistently throughout the world," said Riginos.

But crossing structures aren’t always possible, especially in places like Sinks Canyon where the topography isn’t very practical. They’re also very expensive.

Riginos said, "that’s when continuing to explore other options like the white bag effect are necessary."

But Riginos also said that the solution probably isn’t to go put a bunch of white canvas bags along Wyoming’s highways.

"I would love to find some partners to take it forward and develop a true technology that does better than the white canvas bags and testing it thoroughly and come up with something lasting and effective," said Riginos.

For now, Riginos has some advice for drivers—slow down where wildlife may be crossing, and keep your eyes on the road.

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.
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