On Saturday, April 29, representatives from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation joined Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WGFD) Wildlife Biologist Gary Fralick to survey winter deer mortality along Highway 89 south of Jackson. None of the participants could have envisioned witnessing an event that brought the poignancy of the wildlife-vehicle issue into vivid focus, but within minutes of starting the survey, they experienced an emotional interaction with one of this winter’s latest casualties.
Fralick led the targeted survey of a half-mile stretch of South Highway 89 from the Snake River Bridge at Von Gontard’s Landing north to Game Creek Road. As a group of six individuals swept through a cottonwood stand on the east side of the highway, they encountered a mule deer doe laying in the underbrush. As the group approached, the deer struggled mightily to flee but couldn’t get to its feet. Its back legs had clearly been broken in a collision with a car. How long it had been suffering there is anyone’s guess, but with the specter of starvation a certainty for an animal with two broken legs, Fralick acted quickly to humanely put the animal out of its misery.
This encounter really struck home for our participants and for Gary himself. All of our organizations recently attended the Wyoming Wildlife and Roadways Summit in Pinedale, which highlighted the biological and engineering considerations in mitigating the impacts of our roads on wildlife and increasing human safety. But this is the side of wildlife vehicle collisions (WVCs) that often goes unseen and is truly tragic. This prime age class doe deer had made it through the difficult winter we had and would likely have survived and helped the population rebound. We also witnessed a side of WVCs that only WGFD wardens and biologists and Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) highway patrol have to participate in and that is the always difficult reality of dispatching an animal, along a busy highway, something that really can never become easy, even for these trained professionals.
Mule deer doe moments after it was put down.
In reality, the life of that deer ended the moment it was struck by a vehicle. As is often the case, an injured animal struggles to its final resting place well off the shoulder of the road, where it may suffer for weeks until it starves to death. The collision may not have even been reported if it hadn’t caused sufficient damage to the vehicle. Studies have shown that up to one-half of deer vehicle collisions go unreported, so the impacts of wildlife-vehicle collisions are actually far greater than the reports on which we base a lot of our decisions.
Survey participants, moved by the power of the moment, mourn the loss of a deer that almost made it through a rough winter.
A few hundred yards from that tragic scene, the group encountered a pair of White-tailed deer carcasses that succumbed under the Flat Creek Bridge, likely after having been struck by vehicles. Those two deer, which died weeks apart in February, incidentally had images captured by a remote-sensing camera that had been placed under the bridge to study the movements of wildlife. Watching the prolonged suffering and eventual death of those deer through time-lapse photography is no easier than witnessing it first hand.
Starting in 2015, several local and regional organizations (Center for Large Landscape Conservation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Teton Conservation District and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative) began working in collaboration with WYDOT to provide pre-construction monitoring of proposed future wildlife crossings along South Highway 89/191 using remote camera sites at locations identified for their importance for connectivity in a future highway redevelopment project that will begin in 2017.
WYDOT is building six large underpasses and many smaller structures to facilitate wildlife movement, reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions, and improve highway safety. The remote cameras are monitoring the proposed locations.
Those underpasses will facilitate safe passage for deer, elk and moose as well as many smaller animals upon completion. The construction of these structures is starting this summer. Studies suggest underpasses are 80%-90% effective at reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions.
The group conducted the targeted survey to collect data that will contribute to WGFD’s knowledge about the mule deer that winter in and around the town of Jackson. Tooth samples were extracted and fibula marrow assessments were conducted on the spot to ascertain age and relative health, or body condition of the animal when it died. The group surveyed a total of one mile – a half-mile on each side of the highway. Within that stretch, 10 carcasses were observed in the ditches and wooded areas along the road underscoring the impacts of this winter on deer throughout the valley, and WVCs on this stretch of South Highway 89.
One of the last carcasses we encountered was a very old age-class doe, with a broken hind leg, wearing an eartag. We’re waiting on the results, but the tag likely came from a study looking at local movements and migrations across our roads. During that study, completed by Teton Science Schools, highway collisions was the number one source of mortality for collared deer. Since the collars have fallen off to allow researchers to collect the data stored within them, it is important that this eartag was retrieved and unsurprising that the individual was killed by a car in this stretch of road years after the study was complete.
Thankfully, construction is about to begin on the first series of underpasses on South Highway 89 and much of the carnage the group encountered on its short survey will be reduced or nearly eliminated in the near future on that stretch of highway.
In 2016, WYDOT, WGFD and local citizens recorded a total of 335 wildlife mortalities on Teton County Highways outside of Grand Teton National Park. This trial winter deer mortality survey illuminated the fact that the actual number of mortalities is likely 25%-50% higher, and it also instilled in the participants a reminder that wildlife deaths caused by vehicles often include a long, painful demise out of our view.
As construction begins on some of the first of our wildlife crossing structures in Jackson Hole, we are also grateful that Teton County is looking at its entire network of roads as it completes a wildlife-roadway master plan with the help of experts at Western Transportation Institute. Many organizations and agencies continue to discuss site-specific solutions to eliminate scenes like those witnessed on the winter deer mortality survey. All options are considered with the knowledge that various mitigation measures may be needed to address some of the complexities of Teton County’s land and roadway system.
Our collective Nature Mapping observations create a long-term dataset of wildlife distribution throughout Jackson Hole. The obvious benefit is that these data provide a more comprehensive view of how wildlife use the valley. The less obvious product of the database is that it includes data that show us how human presence affects wildlife, often in the form of wildlife mortality. The most common reference source for human-caused wildlife mortality is the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation’s Wildlife-Vehicle Collision Database. It contains data derived from WYDOT and Wyoming Game & Fish carcass and crash counts, but also includes Nature Mapping observations from citizens who report roadkill to JHWF at 307-739-0968, or enter their roadkill observations directly via their Nature Mapping account. All of these records eventually are cross-checked to remove duplicates. It is an important resource, adding to our local knowledge, and helping to inform county-wide plans to find solutions that save wildlife and make our highways safer for drivers.
The Wildlife-Vehicle Collision (WVC) Database captured 259 collisions in 2015. Data for the 2015 update was acquired from the following data sources: Wyoming Department of Transportation – Carcass (118), Wyoming Department of Transportation – Crash (70), Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife Observation System (33) and Nature Mapping Jackson Hole (28). In total, the WVC database contains 46 total species with mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk and moose being the most prominent species involved in WVCs.
The below map shows where the most frequent collision points are on the local highway network. The highlighted areas had the highest number of collisions from 2013-2015. During this intense winter of 2016-2017, these data have helped us to pinpoint places to add emergency mitigation measures. If you see a dead animal on the side of the highway – small mammals and rodents as well as ungulates – please enter it into the Nature Mapping database, or call us at 307-739-0968 with precise location and time and our staff will enter it. We are likely underestimating the number of animals struck on the highways – certainly for non-ungulates – and our future solutions will depend on our ability to accurately capture what is happening on the roads. Thank you for your help!
The Teton County Sheriff’s Office contributed two more variable message signs to a stretch of S HWY 89 as area organizations enacted emergency options to address a challenging winter for wildlife.
We have all seen that this year’s snowpack is making things difficult on wildlife. Mule deer in particular are spending more time in the town and on the roads – wherever they can find easier movement and potential forage. As they join us on the valley floor and move around where we do, the potential for conflict of many kinds increases. An obvious problem arises on our roadways, as high snowbanks both limit driver visibility and make navigation challenging for wildlife. Area organizations and agencies continue to discuss options to address the issue, some having been put in place immediately as short -and long-term strategies to reduce wildlife vehicle collisions are integrated. Here’s an update on the quick-response efforts:
Jackson Hole News & Guide article by Mike Koshmrl (Thursday, January 26)
A small herd of bighorn sheep is frequenting the stretch of N HWY 89 just north of the Dairy Queen near the town limits. Please give them ample space and time to move. Unlike deer and elk, these sheep will obstinately remain on the road.
While a county-wide master plan is in process, an array of short-term mitigation measures have been and will continue to be considered. We are grateful that a good deal of data exists on the relative effectiveness of various measures, which we use to make decisions while also recognizing the constraints of time, resources and feasibility. The planned crossings on South HWY 89 (construction set to begin next spring) will separate animals from the roadway, which data suggests is the most effective way to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions at scale. According to most research, underpasses and overpasses are 80-90% effective at reducing WVCs, while seasonal wildlife alert signage (i.e. variable mobile message signs) is estimated in the 20-25% effective range, making it an effective emergency measure and complimentary piece within a holistic WVC reduction effort. The master plan will likely include a number of mitigation recommendations to include structures, signs and speed limit adjustments to apply the most effective site-specific solutions across the valley.
What can you do now?
- Be alert and drive for the conditions. Most accidents happen at times of low visibility – dawn, dusk, nighttime or in bad weather.
- Watch for electronic warning signs. These signs are put in places where we know animals are or have recently been crossing the road frequently. They’re not just generic warnings – when you see these signs, watch carefully for wildlife.
- When you see wildlife near roadways – slow down immediately. If you see one animal cross the road, it is very likely more are close behind. Animals near the road are not waiting for us to pass by – expect them to do something unexpected, like dash in front of your car.
- In winter, wildlife often use roads to move about – it’s easier than walking through deep snow. But, sometimes they get onto a road and can’t find a quick place to get off. Give them a brake. Be patient and give them time to find a place to get off the road.
- To protect yourself and your passengers, experts advise that you should not swerve off the road to avoid hitting an animal.
- Familiarize yourself with the wildlife-vehicle collision hotspots (located here) and be even more mindful when driving there. Hint: The flashing fixed radar speed limit signs and digital message boards are located in some of these hotspots.
- Get involved with Safe Wildlife Crossings for Jackson Hole to learn about what we can do to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions as a community.
- Contact your elected officials to let them know that reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions is a high priority.
- If you see areas where snowbanks are trapping wildlife on roadways or impeding movement unusually, please don’t hesitate to call us at 307-739-0968. We work with local partners to address these issues if possible.
Additionally, if you are a Nature Mapper, record your observations of wildlife around neighborhoods and roadways. Please use the comments fields to share the activity you observe. The more information we collect about locations and behaviors during winter (all seasons, actually), the better we understand as a community how we are interacting with wildlife, with the goal of living compatibly alongside our wild neighbors.
Be especially alert in the areas highlighted on this map!