It was a brisk spring morning, and we’d gathered to walk Wyoming’s Highway 89/191 south of Jackson to survey how many deer had been hit by cars and killed during this last hard winter. Counting dead deer along the road isn’t for everyone, but it's a critical step towards our goal: Building underpasses so that wildlife can safely cross this busy highway.
And our group got more than we bargained for that morning.
Just minutes after starting the survey, as we swept through a cottonwood stand, we found a mule deer doe – alive – lying in the underbrush. She struggled to flee but couldn’t get to her feet. Her back legs had clearly been broken by a car. How long she’d been suffering was anyone’s guess. And because her two broken legs meant that she’d certainly slowly starve to death, a biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish quickly put her out of her misery.
This encounter shows exactly why we’ve been working with Game and Fish, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, and the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) to build underpasses that animals can use to safely cross South Highway 89/101.
If our goal is to keep people safe and animals alive, studies suggest underpasses are the way to go. They’re up to 90 percent effective at reducing the number of cars that hit deer, elk, moose and other animals.
We’ve spent the past two years working with our partners to lay the groundwork for WYDOT to build these underpasses, including setting up camera traps to record where animals are crossing roads, and building local and state support for this effective, common-sense solution. Groundbreaking on WYDOT’s six large underpasses and many smaller structures is slated to begin this year as part of highway improvements.
After the sad encounter with the doe deer, our group moved on and surveyed a total of one mile (half a mile on each side of the highway). We counted 10 deer carcasses in ditches and wooded areas along the road. The totals for this year are likely to be high – last year, WYDOT and others recorded 335 total animals killed on highways in Teton County. And these counts may be on the low end of the actual numbers of animals killed by cars. A driver might not report hitting a deer if their car isn’t heavily damaged. Studies have shown that up to half of deer-car collisions go unreported. And some injured animals struggle to their final resting places well off the shoulders of roads, and so may be missed in a springtime count like the one we did with our partners.
Seeing that injured doe wasn't pretty. But it drove home for us and our partners that our work with WYDOT to build wildlife crossings is the right thing to do to keep drivers safe and our deer, elk, moose and all other Greater Yellowstone wildlife alive.
-- Mac Dukart, Teton Outreach Associate