Monique DiGiorgio was driving on Highway 90 back to her home in Bozeman when she learned the hard way that wildlife-vehicle accidents are traumatic and potentially deadly. Two deer suddenly appeared in her headlights. She hit them both at 75 mph. Airbags deployed, essentially blinding her. Miraculously, she wasn’t hurt and was able to get safely to the side of the road. When the tow truck driver arrived to haul her totaled car away, he noted that he “tows away deer-damaged cars all the time at this exact spot.”
As noted in a recent Missoulian article, Montana now ranks second in the nation in the risk that a driver will hit a deer. West Virginia took the “top” spot but, as the article stated, we have 400,000 fewer drivers than that state.
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This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Who in Montana hasn’t been in a vehicle that has hit an animal, or had a family member or friend run into a deer or even something larger, like an elk or a moose?
Every year, wildlife-vehicle collisions nationwide cause more than 200 human deaths, 26,000 injuries and over $8 billion in damages, not to mention the terrible toll on wildlife, including game species valued by sportsman. And if current trends continue, the impacts of these tragic encounters will only become more acute. For example, here in Montana, half of all accidents on Highway 89 between Livingston and Gardiner involve wildlife, and traffic is projected to increase significantly.
The good news is that there are proven solutions to this costly issue: wildlife underpasses, overpasses and systems that automatically detect wildlife and alert motorists. These measures are extremely effective, having been shown to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions by over 85 percent. Given that the average cost of hitting a deer is over $7,500 – and the figures are even higher for elk ($20,000) and moose ($35,000) – there are many sites where these measures will pay for themselves by saving taxpayer dollars and reducing deaths and injuries to both humans and wildlife.
One need look no further than Highway 93 in the Flathead Valley to see how effective these structures can be. Along a 56-mile stretch of highway on the Flathead Indian Reservation that passes through an area rich in wildlife, the Montana Department of Transportation, in partnership with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, installed 40 fish and wildlife underpasses and one wildlife overpass. The results have been stunning: from 2010-2012, these crossings have been used over 53,600 times by more than 30 species!
After her dramatic collision with those two deer, DiGiorgio joined up with other citizens to create Montanans for Safe Wildlife Passage (MSWP), a coalition of organizations working to save lives, property damage and animals by reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions. MSWP believes that if the Department of Transportation and other state agencies prioritize wildlife crossing structures and systems where they’re needed most, we can reduce wildlife-vehicle accidents in Montana by 20 percent in the next five years. One simple and cost-effective first step in the process is to identify the highest priority sites statewide, as Idaho has done, so that Montana can invest its scarce highway dollars in those spots where they will garner the biggest “bang for their buck.” Meanwhile, the state of Wyoming has built wildlife underpasses and overpasses on five different highways, with several more in the works.
Montanans are rightfully proud of so many things that make this state such a wonderful place to call home. But being No. 2 in the nation in wildlife-vehicle accidents is not one of them. We need to work together to put Montana nearer the bottom of that list. Please help us by contacting your state representative today to express your concern about this issue.
Dennis Glick, executive director of Future West, and Renee Callahan, senior policy officer for the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, are members of Montanans for Safe Wildlife Passage, a coalition of nonprofit organizations advocating for innovative solutions to maintain habitat connectivity and provide safe passage for Montana’s people, fish and wildlife. For more information see montanans4wildlife.org.