Agencies seek ways to end auto-wildlife collisions in Park County

By Mark Davis

Powell Tribune

Via Wyoming News Exchange

POWELL — Two Park County highways are ranked among the most dangerous stretches for wildlife collisions in the state. 

Area drivers’ odds of an automobile accident involving wildlife are highest between Trout Creek and Wapiti on U.S. Highway 14/16/20. It ranks as one of the top three most dangerous roads in the state per car traveling. And a 17-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 14 between Powell and Cody is classified as one of Wyoming’s most dangerous sections of highway by volume. 

The Cody-Powell stretch sees about 140 animals hit per year (mostly deer), making it one of the three worst stretches of road in the state in terms of total number of animals killed per mile per year. 

“It’s a pretty bad area compared with the rest of the state,” said Corinna Riginos, a conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy. “It’s one of the hotter areas.” 

The figures are based off reported collisions to the Wyoming Department of Transportation; the tally goes up when you consider non-reported mortality, said Riginos, who estimated that about half go unreported. 

“There are many other animals, particularly deer, that get hit and die by the side of the road. But there’s insufficient damage to the vehicle to actually report [the collision],” she said. 

Another area of great concern is Wyo. Highway 120 between Cody and Meeteetse, said Corey Class, Cody Region wildlife management coordinator. It’s a particular problem for pronghorn and mule deer. 

Spearheaded by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Wyoming Department of Transportation, the two agencies jointly hosted a summit in 2017 to focus attention on migrating and wintering wildlife, wildlife-vehicle collisions, and motorist safety. The Wyoming Bureau of Land Management also joined in the discussion, plus The Nature Conservancy and several other non-governmental organizations. Together they formed the Wyoming Wildlife and Roadways Initiative to “find innovative ways to implement and fund projects that reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions, increase motorist safety and maintain or re-establish disconnected wildlife migration routes.” 

Every year, more than 6,000 deer, pronghorn, elk and moose are reportedly hit by vehicles on Wyoming’s roads. The accidents cost nearly $50 million annually in damages to vehicles, human injury expenses and loss of wildlife, said Bebe Crouse, the Conservancy’s associate director of communications. 

The risk of hitting an animal, per vehicle traveling, is highest on some of the less-trafficked roads. The highest risk is a spot near the Laramie Mountains, followed by the Trout Creek-Wapiti area. 

“The Cody-Powell section risk per vehicle of hitting an animal is not as high, but is still in the top [third] of the more than 40 sites that the Wyoming Wildlife and Roadways Initiative evaluated,” Riginos said. 

The Game and Fish and WYDOT combined their data to identify hot spots, mapping out the state’s areas of greatest concern. From the map, they prioritized areas of action based not only on a safety perspective, but also in terms of wildlife populations, Class said. 

Most local residents are aware of routine crossing areas in Park County, but area attractions draw in many visitors. “The traffic is just now picking up with tourists in the area,” he said. 

And it’s not just deer and pronghorn that have the agencies concerned. Two grizzly bears have already been killed on area roads this year, and moose in the Bighorn Mountains are also a concern. 

Solutions aren’t as easy as just putting up more fences. Concerns for migration routes and further fragmenting habitat have to be taken in consideration. The best solution is overand underpasses, Riginos said. 

“They are more than 80 percent effective in reducing collisions,” she said, “But we recognize of course that they are expensive and not always feasible.” 

Each crossing structure can cost from “[a] million to millions” of dollars, Riginos said. “They are the long-term solution if they can be done.” 

There are more than a dozen underpasses and two overpasses already built in the state. Six more are under construction south of Jackson. But there aren’t any in the Big Horn Basin. 

One issue in the Powell area is its agricultural nature, said Scott Gamo, environmental services manager for WYDOT. There are many access points to fields filled with resident wildlife that make it nearly impossible to direct wildlife to safe crossing areas. 

“Some areas are more difficult than others,” Gamo said. “Wildlife corridors were initially prioritized because yearround and seasonal use areas between ag land and bedding sites are tougher to control.” 

For Park County’s priority areas, he said signage and public awareness may be the best solution. One way WYDOT has approached the problem is portable message signs. 

“We move them around so people are surprised by the sign, hoping [to] catch people’s attention better,” Gamo said. 

More than 240 projects have been identified statewide by the groups, with 41 deemed high priority. New high-visibility signs were recently installed between Cody and Wapiti to catch the attention of visitors traveling to Yellowstone National Park, Gamo said. But finding a steady funding stream for projects may be the highest hurdle at this point. 

Some of the funding sources include a specialty license plate (unveiled last year) that collects funds dedicated to wildlife crossings and targeted federal grants. The group has also been investigating other avenues, such as collecting a specialty fee at national park properties for wildlife crossings and approaching the Legislature to institute a special tax.