In spring, as we replace our winter tires and hose the salt stains off our mud mats, there’s relief in knowing we don’t have to deal with driving on icy, snowy or slushy roads for another six months. But with the emergence of spring buds and blooms comes the emergence of wildlife, looking for food, habitat and mates—and that causes a whole new set of road hazards.
Canada has a massive road network that cuts through prime wildlife habitat, posing danger to both humans and animals. Nationwide, four to eight large animal vehicle collisions occur every hour, according to the British Columbia Wildlife Collision Prevention Program (WCPP). In B.C., more than 10,000 wildlife vehicle collisions occur every year, resulting in about 570 personal injuries and three fatalities.
About 80 per cent of these collisions involve deer, while other victims include moose, elk, bears and coyotes. But that doesn’t consider collisions with smaller animals like racoons, skunks, rabbits and squirrels because, “as they cause less damage to private property or human life, they rarely appear in official statistics,” said the WCPP on its website.
For years, mitigation efforts — such as overpasses, tunnels and fencing — have attempted to reduce wildlife vehicle collisions, with varying success. Recently, researchers at New Brunswick-based Mount Allison University took part in a study published in “The Journal of Wildlife Management” that used spatial analysis to better understand highway vehicle collisions with elk, using a central Ontario herd as a study group.
About 50 elk were reintroduced into a region near Sudbury in 1930, and in the late 1990s another 150 animals were reintroduced from Alberta’s Elk Island. But from 2008 to 2012, Highway 69, which cuts through the herd’s territory, was expanded to four lanes.
Since then, vehicle collisions with elk near Greater Sudbury have more than doubled, according to the study, despite the presence of overpasses, tunnels and wildlife fencing. (However, it should be noted, these mitigation strategies may have benefited other animal populations in the area.)
While the fencing wasn’t centred around the herd’s main territory, this was made worse by the unexpected movement of the herd, allowing them to circumvent the fencing, said Dr. David Lieske, associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environment at Mount Allison, who collaborated on the study.
“Not only were there more elk in the highway area, but there were also more mortality reports,” he said. “It brought home the message that when you’re building any highway mitigation strategy, you need to follow up on it and it has to be adaptive. You can’t build it once and leave it.”
For example, it may be necessary to shift or expand wildlife fencing, or in certain areas the fencing may need to be higher or deeper in the ground. And there may be holes in the fence that require repairs.
While the findings of the study are specific to the herd, they hold lessons for current and future mitigation infrastructure. For example, integrated monitoring and use of adaptive management is important for limiting wildlife vehicle collisions in the long run.
“We can’t just wall off the road and build a fortress — it would be catastrophic for the animals. You’d be isolating them from each other,” said Lieske. “Ideally you want animals to move naturally so they can find mates and find food, but creating conditions that foster that take a bit of thought. What may work for one group of animals may not work for another group of animals.”
While fencing can be moved, the same can’t be said of overpasses and tunnels. So, what can drivers do to play their part?
Ultimately, many wildlife vehicle collisions are caused by driving too fast or not paying attention, which can both delay reaction times. “We think we own the road, but we don’t really own it. This habitat is how (animals) survive and we’re moving through it,” said Lieske.
As we see more urban sprawl and the expansion of transportation networks, wildlife vehicle collisions will continue to be an issue. “If anything, this problem is going to intensify. My feeling is if we could just go slower, we could prevent a lot of collisions,” said Lieske. “It’s like defensive driving except you’re looking out for animals rather than other drivers. It’s a change in mindset.”
Tips for avoiding collisions with wildlife:
- Be extra cautious at dawn and dusk when animals are more active and when visibility is reduced.
- When driving at night, slow down and actively scan the road ahead, as well as the ditch.
- Slow down in narrow, forested areas and near culverts or water sources where animals may be moving around.
- Pay attention to wildlife warning signs (which are yellow and diamond-shaped).
- Some animals (like elk) travel in groups, so if you see one, be aware there may be more around.
- Deer may panic and freeze in the middle of the road when they see your headlights, so slow down at night or in areas where signage indicates deer are present.
- While many collisions take place on smaller, rural roads, wildlife can still be present in urban areas, so stay vigilant.