Deer-ly Dangerous

August 10, 2012

As we all know, deer and cars are known to collide, resulting in the death of the animal and causing costly and dangerous damage to the vehicle. People are often injured, and occasionally are killed as in the sad case of Stanford grad student Daniel Strickland in September 2011.

While these accidents occur wherever humans and deer share space, I-280 is considered especially animal unfriendly. Rte 280 is surrounded by open space, which, while beautiful, provides expansive habitat and opportunities for deer to cross. Solutions have been proposed ranging from “deer-proof fencing” (hopefully more effective than the stuff deer gracefully leap over to get into our gardens!) to the possibility of constructing wildlife tunnels under the freeway. More moderate and near-term ideas include the possibility of aggressively trimming brush back from the road bed to give deer a clearer view of traffic before they leap into eternity, an option raised by Fraser Shilling, a director at the Road Ecology Center of UC Davis.

But which option might prove effective? Where do deer successfully – and unsuccessfully – try to cross the highway? Why have some deer obviously have the knack to navigate our roadways – with some deer spending more than ten years going back and forth along the very busy 280 – while some hapless animals don’t make it nearly that long? Researchers are investigating these questions by first tracking animal migration patterns along 280, which is why you might have seen them with their tranquilizer guns during a recent weekend.

In a project costing $300,000, three institutions (Caltrans, Fish and Game, and UC Davis) are studying these problems. They dart deer with tranquilizers and attach radio collars in an effort to build a comprehensive model of their migration patterns and to discover especially dangerous areas for them. The collars fall off after about six months.

In addition, the Road Ecology Center aims to improve transportation systems by better information about where wildlife vehicle collisions occur, what animals are involved, on what kinds of roads collisions are frequent, and other data can help inform policy, management, and financial investment in reducing road kill. The California Roadkill Observation System (CROS) is a joint effort of the Road Ecology Center and the Information Center for the Environment. Their amazing mapping system shows where road kill has been reported. See also here and here.

The website allows volunteers to upload and retrieve data, like exact sighting locations, descriptions of wildlife, and photos. You can help by reporting your own observations. Data from the CROS can help researchers pinpoint “road kill hot spots” where animal crossing signs can alert drivers, or where structures such as culverts or wildlife overpasses may be considered.

In the two years since the observation projects have been on-going in California and Maine, more than 1,000 citizen scientists have reported seeing more than 20,000 bodies.

We certainly hope this work bears fruit, and sooner rather than later! We love our majestic furred friends – but on hillsides and in dappled glades, rather than dodging the morning commute!

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