Where wildlife meets the road

PINEDALE – At least 150 people crowded into the Pinedale Library’s Lovatt Room Wednesday morning, April 26, to open the first Wyoming Wildlife and Roadways Summit.

Of the large audience, about one-third of those attending were Wyoming Game and Fish (G&F) employees, with another third made up by Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) and the rest representing citizens, grassroots and conservation groups such as the Wyoming Migration Initiative.

The occasion – as well as the location – is both timely and appropriate, with presentations about WYDOT’s engineering of over- and underpasses for migrating wildlife mainly in the springtime and fall. Sublette County opened two award-winning overpasses and six underpasses in recent years to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and both human and ungulate fatalities and damages.

G&F director Scott Talbott and WYDOT director Bill Panos made opening remarks about strengthening relationships among the stakeholders on identifying and funding projects that enhance wildlife and human safety along the state’s roads.

Panos asked those present to “take advantage” of WYDOT employees’ “expertise.”

“Wyoming is blessed with a lot of things,” he added, citing the state agencies, citizens, ranchers, environmentalists and conservationists. “This is an environment where wildlife isn’t just surviving; it’s thriving.”

Wyoming is one of only two states in the country with its highway patrol in its transportation system, and both are most concerned with public safety, Panos said. That includes reducing the numbers of vehicle-wildlife collisions.

For example, in Nugget Canyon – a 13-mile stretch between Kemmerer and Sage Junction – wildlife underpasses have resulted in an 81-percent drop in collisions with migrating mule deer.

At Trappers Point between Pinedale and Daniel, 91 percent of collisions were with mule deer and about 9 percent with pronghorn antelope, he added.

“Three years later, mule deer collisions were reduced by 80 percent and pronghorn (collisions) were almost eliminated entirely. It’s amazing what simple engineered designs and structures can do.”

WYDOT keeps “very specific records” on these types of wildlife collisions and the “most sobering part of my job” is the “unacceptable” human fatalities, which for five years previous averaged five per year but in 2015, rose to 10.

Panos said each summit stakeholder had something to bring to the table to protect wildlife and improve public safety. “Wyoming is committed, as you can tell.”

The plan for Wednesday was to hear presentations from WYDOT, G&F and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) explaining how each works, to be followed by larger breakout groups considering challenges and how to overcome them.

Presentations began with “Roads and their impacts on wildlife,” by Corinna Riginos of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, who discussed patterns of wildlife-vehicle collisions and how roadways and landscapes are barriers to connecting wildlife habitats.

Riginos looked at statewide statistics, saying she works from WYDOT collision records. With carcass pickups, about 6,000 mule deer were reported, which she said is probably about half of all that occur.

“With 6,000 to 12,000 deer hit every year on Wyoming roads, that’s a pretty significant impact on the population,” she said, adding an estimated $15 million in damages occur statewide each year. An overall goal of the summit is to find ways to fund and implement projects that reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and increase motorist safety, with increased traffic comes less time between cars or space for animals crossing.

To emphasize her point, she showed infrared video clips of deer both safely and fatally trying to cross busy roads. Maps of migration routes and mule deer habitats also revealed how high traffic and “barrier” roads – particularly I-80 – affect migration for “better mitigations,” she added.

Each locale seems to have its own trends, with Dubois reporting more collision year-round rather than seasonal. In Cokeville, large spring and fall migrations result in the “single hottest mile in the whole state,” Riginos said.

Sublette County commissioner Mack Rawhouser asked her about the stretch from Dry Piney to LaBarge, saying, “There are a lot of deer hit there.”

Riginos said that area’s winter carcass reports did not include numerous dead deer because they were too decomposed to be included in the WYDOT database.

“I think this is an area that might be underestimated,” she said. “That’s the really vital information that we want to see come out of (Thursday’s) conversations.”

With stakeholders present from across the state, Riginos said, these less-known “hotspots” could be reviewed and prioritized by smaller breakout groups to search for solutions. That was on the agenda for Thursday, as groups intently worked through lunch on their brainstorming sessions.


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