In early October, State Farm Insurance issued its 16th annual report on deer-vehicle collisions and it will likely come as no surprise to Wyoming residents that their odds of being involved in a collision with a deer are close to double the national average.
In its report, State Farm calculated that U.S. drivers had a one in 162 chance of hitting a deer with their vehicle. In Wyoming, those odds are one in 88 and it places Wyoming at number nine in its list of top 10 states for deer collisions. West Virginia ranked first for the 12th year in a row, with drivers there having a one in 46 chance of hitting a deer.
In 2017, the Wyoming Department of Transportation recorded 2,436 vehicle collisions with deer, 227 with antelope, 133 with elk and 35 with moose. The department believes that less than half of collisions are actually reported, but for each incident that is, it estimated $11,600 in human injury and property damage.
Also in October, the Wyoming Wildlife and Roadway Initiative Team released its list of priority locations in the state to pursue projects that would decrease animal collisions. The team, led by representatives of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the WYDOT, reviewed data from around the state to identify areas where deer, elk, antelope and other animals were struck at the highest rates.
Three priorities were identified in the Game and Fish Sheridan Region — Interstate 90 between Buffalo and Gillette; east and west of the Powder River at mile markers 81 to 105; Interstate 25 between Buffalo and Kaycee at mile markers 255 to 270; and the entirety of Interstate 90 between Sheridan and Buffalo.
Statewide projects to reduce animal collisions may include fencing that directs animals to existing underpasses for safe crossing, signage alerting drivers to potential animals on the road and the building of overpasses. Overpass construction has been successful in other parts of the state along documented migration corridors, but their use in our area may be limited.
At this time, we lack data for the Sheridan Region identifying any defined wildlife migration corridors. Deer and elk on the Bighorn Mountains make elevational movements during certain times of the year, but it is unknown what movement patterns exist in populations on the slopes and east of the mountains. However, there are currently movement studies underway on moose and elk in the Bighorns and a study on deer movements in the Buffalo and Kaycee areas will begin in coming weeks.
Of course, overpasses, fencing projects and other mitigation efforts cost money, sometimes a lot of money. A series of six underpasses and two overpasses constructed between Pinedale and Jackson in recent years cost almost $10 million.
However, according to the Wyoming Migration Initiative, a study published in 2016 found that the over and underpasses reduced vehicle collisions with mule deer by 79 percent between 2012 and 2015 and reduced collisions with pronghorn to zero. They calculated at the time that the structures reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions by 69 incidents per year. With this scale of collision reduction, the average $2 million cost to construct an over pass can be recouped in just a few years. Underpasses are significantly cheaper to construct at approximately $400,000.
The Wyoming State Legislature passed a bill in 2017 that will soon allow Wyoming residents to purchase wildlife conservation license plates to help fund projects around the state. The specialized plates will be available beginning Jan. 2, 2019 for $150 dollars. Proceeds from the license plates will be set aside and used to pay for wildlife-friendly fencing, warning signs, wildlife over and underpasses and other projects around the state.
Christina Schmidt is the public information specialist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department — Sheridan Region.