Most drivers have experienced it at some point in their lives. A thud, a crunch … just a split second after seeing an animal appear on the road in front of them.
It’s a horrible feeling, knowing you’ve killed a defenseless creature that was simply trying to get home, or to a food source. And when it’s a large animal – such as a deer, or a horse – serious damage can result to vehicles or their drivers.
That’s why it was good to hear that the Nevada Department of Transportation completed work this fall on two major wildlife crossings in Elko County. These large, earthen bridges are now making it safer for wildlife to cross Interstate 80 near Pequop Summit.
“In recent years, one motorist death, 12 injuries and more than 200 wildlife-vehicle collisions have been reported to NDOT in the area, representing half of all reported wildlife-vehicle collisions along the entire length of I-80 in the state,” NDOT reported.
We have already seen the success of two crossings at different points on U.S. Highway 93 north of Wells. Accomplishing the same task across I-80 has been a much bigger undertaking, however. Work began two and a half years ago on the Pequop crossings, which span 200 feet each.
More than 35,000 mule deer used a safety crossing during their seasonal migrations across U.S. 93 during the first four years after they were installed, according to research conducted by the University of Nevada, Reno.
These projects started with NDOT and the Nevada Department of Wildlife working together to identify deer migration routes and roadway crossings points. GPS collars installed by NDOW helped track the movements of hundreds of deer.
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The bridges are made to blend into the environment as much as possible. Native soil and vegetation are used to make wildlife more comfortable using them.
“Not only are the roadways safer for motorists, but we are ensuring the corridors that mule deer and other wildlife use to get from their summer ranges to their critical winter ranges remain intact,” NDOW Game Biologist Kari Huebner said. “For mule deer in northeast Nevada, the trek from summer range to winter range may be as long as 110 miles.”
The overpasses are helping mule deer “to reconnect an historically important migration route, and that helps Nevada hunters and everyone who values healthy ecosystems,” said Sandra Jacobson, wildlife biologist and member of ARC (Animal Road Crossing) Solutions.
She noted that human injury and property damage from animal collisions cost American taxpayers more than $8 billion annually.
While projects like this are welcome in rural Elko County they are also popping up in wildlife-rich regions across the country. Thousands have been built over the past two decades, but the earliest were devised in France back in the 1950s. Today, ARC holds contests for wildlife crossing designs, many of which are unique to the species and terrain involved.
Improvements in design have made the structures more useable by wildlife, more effective at reducing collisions, and better at blending in with the surroundings.
We don’t know how many more wildlife crossings NDOT plans to build in the near future. Judging from the carnage that typically lines the highway between Elko and Spring Creek, we know there can never be too many. But the structures are too expensive to be built wherever they are needed.
It’s great to see rural Nevada becoming more wildlife-friendly. We can help by driving carefully regardless of how near or far an overpass is from our route. Slow down – particularly around twilight hours – and be prepared to brake for the creatures whose ancestors have likely tread across our path centuries before the invention of the automobile.