Death road 

When wildlife loses the race

Last October, just weeks before I moved to Montana, I was cruising along Interstate 94 in Wisconsin when a six-point buck appeared in the beams of my headlights. I was clipping along at 65 or 70 miles per hour, so there was no chance of avoiding the imminent collision. Through a surreal, slow-motion blur of gore, crunching metal and deployed-airbag haze, I watched as the deer did improbable summersaults in the beam of my remaining headlight. My wife, Cathy, and I were terrified but otherwise okay. The whitetail buck wasn’t so lucky.

After stopping the car, I went over to make sure the deer was dead. It lay motionless on the shoulder of the highway, a furry bag of blood and broken bones. It was a sad and gruesome sight, and one that nearly a million Americans see each year. Chances are, you or someone you know has had a comparable experience.

In Montana, as in Wisconsin, October is one of the worst months for vehicle collisions with large animals, according to the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), which issued its Fall Wildlife/Automobile Collision advisory last week. According to the advisory, collisions between automobiles and large animals have quadrupled in the past 20 years, and a large number of those collisions occur in the fall months, especially October. It is estimated that 700,000 to 1 million collisions of this type occur annually nationwide, resulting in an average of 200 human deaths per year, about 30,000 injuries, and more than $1.2 billion in damage. In 2004, Montana saw 2,027 motorist collisions with animals, leading to six human deaths.

Not all collisions with animals are recorded, however. According to some estimates, about 1 million vertebrates are killed every day on U.S. roads. You only have to look out your car window to see the evidence: a rotting deer carcass in a ditch; a pancaked squirrel on a city street; a family of raccoons run down on a rural road.

In addition to making a mess, “Roadkill acts as a window into other forms of environmental degradation,” says Margot Higgins, co-producer/director of an upcoming documentary film on the subject. For instance: Roads cause habitat fragmentation, generating a whole host of other ecological impacts that lead to millions of wildlife fatalities, Higgins says.

With filmmaking partner Wolf Drimal, Higgins hopes to draw attention to an issue they say most Americans don’t think about. The two University of Montana graduate students, working on a High Plains Films documentary fellowship, are finishing up production on a documentary that explores people’s “reflections on, and attitudes toward, the conflict between wildlife and our automobile culture.”

Increased growth in Western Montana is partly to blame for the increase in automobile/animal collisions here, but according to the filmmakers, society’s attitude toward roadkill is also a major factor contributing to the continued destruction of wildlife along Montana roadways.

“We have this notion that we have a right to drive through a landscape, and any animal that may be on that road is a danger,” says Drimal.

The real problem, he says, is that motorists don’t think of roads as a part of the landscape, they see roads as apart from the landscape, a view that holds even in places people travel for the main purpose of seeing wildlife, such as Yellowstone National Park.

In 2004, motorists killed six bears in the park, including a grizzly sow and three black bear cubs. According to roadkill statistics compiled in the February 7, 2005 issue of High Country News, 1,559 large animals were killed on Yellowstone’s roads from 1989 to 2003. That number includes 556 elk, 192 bison, 135 coyotes, 112 moose, 24 antelope and three bobcats.

“There’s a total apathy for the most part,” says Drimal. “There’s very little acknowledgement that there is a dead being on the side of the road that was alive a few minutes ago.”

Roadkill is something nearly everyone has experience with, Higgins says, yet it is common for people to get back into their cars and continue driving the same way they always have: too fast.

Speed kills; and Higgins and Drimal aren’t the only ones trying to spread that message. The MDT’s top recommendation to motorists for reducing the chance of a vehicle/animal collision is to slow down. Reduced speed results in faster stops. But while slowing down is a sure-fire way to reduce the number of animals slain on Montana roadways, getting the message across isn’t easy, says Higgins.

“Our main hope is that the film will create a level of consciousness of the issue,” she says. “We want people to realize that it doesn’t matter what they are killing. When they drive too fast and hit an animal they are taking something out of the natural process.”

And the more animals killed on Montana’s roadways, the more money spent on cleaning up the messes. According to Doug Moeller, MDT maintenance chief for the Missoula region, MDT crews remove close to 300 deer each year from Missoula-area highways. In the Bitterroot Valley, the number climbs to as many as 700 deer each year. In the city of Missoula, BFI garbage collection crews pick up close to 200 deer each year.

Removing spattered and rotting animal carcasses from the road is a grisly task for the crews assigned to the work.

“It’s an unpleasant chore,” says Moeller. “The animals are not usually in the best of shape. Some of them are not spattered, but many of them have an open cavity. Depending on the weather, it can get pretty nasty real quick.”

When crews locate the carcass, one or two workers don rubber gloves and go to work loading the mess in the back of a truck so it can be hauled away to a landfill or rendering plant.

“I think whitetail populations are up and the density of growth is increasing in this area,” says Moeller. “The chances of hitting a deer are going up.”

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