Highways across U.S. adapted to reduce
collisions with wildlife
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
SEQUIM, Wash. -- When elk amble across Highway 101 here on
the Olympic Peninsula of western Washington, radio collars
around their necks set off flashing lights up and down the
A continent away, when moose wander across Route 4 in the
mountains of western Maine, their hulking bodies break an
infrared beam that triggers flashing lights on moose warning
On re-engineered highways between the wireless elk and the
beam-breaking moose, there are underpasses for tortoises in
California, vibration-detectors for deer in Wyoming and a
52-foot-wide overpass for deer, foxes, coyotes and opossums
on Interstate 75 in Florida.
At an accelerating pace, federal and state highways across
much of the United States are being tricked out with critter-crossing
technology, high and low. It is an attempt to halt a rising
tide of roadkill the grisly result of more cars, more
sprawl and a continent-wide resurgence of large hoofed animals,
including deer, elk and, deadliest of all, moose.
The scale of America's roadkill and highway ecology problem
is attracting high-level attention after decades of being
ignored by highway engineers and regional planning agencies,
said Richard Forman, a professor of ecology at Harvard.
"We have come a long way since the mid-1990s, when
there was a pitiful amount of information," he said.
"Thinking about road ecology is now permeating state
departments of transportation in a very positive way."
That thinking has also percolated up to Congress. For the
first time, the Senate version of a pending transportation
bill would require all state transportation departments to
consult with fish and game agencies from the beginning of
planning for roads built with federal money. Also, for the
first time, the Senate bill considers wildlife crossings to
be a major safety issue and would allocate federal money for
fences, overpasses and other ways of reducing roadkill.
Moose collisions have become so common in Maine that the
state Department of Transportation is warning that if the
beast is unavoidable, drivers should aim for its tail. That
reduces the chance of a 1,500-pound antlered ungulate crashing
through the windshield and landing in a driver's lap.
People are killed or seriously injured in one out of four
of the 700 or so moose-vehicle collisions that have occurred
in Maine every year for the past decade. Moose (and to a somewhat
lesser extent, elk) are potentially lethal because they are
tall, with most of their body mass located above the hood
of a car. In a collision, a car's bumper takes out the animal's
legs, while its head and body hurtle toward the windshield.
Late spring is high season for these crashes, and Maine had
its first fatality of the year last weekend, when a motorcyclist
died after hitting a moose.
In the past two decades, moose trouble has spread across
much of New England. The number of moose killed by cars in
Vermont, for example, jumped from two in 1982 to 164 in 2002,
according to the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"We have had an explosion of moose in the past decade,"
said Eugene Dumont, a wildlife biologist for the state of
Maine. "Our habitat is conducive to moose, with less
farming and more forest. We have more moose per square mile
than anywhere else in North America. Combine that with more
traffic and you get more accidents."
Although moose and elk are the deadliest (to human beings)
of animals commonly hit on U.S. highways, the country's primary
roadkill problem is deer.
Like moose and elk, deer numbers have exploded because of
less farming and more habitat, including succulent suburban
lawns and shrubs. But unlike moose or elk, which are proliferating
mostly in New England and the Rocky Mountain West, deer are
More than 90 percent of animal-vehicle collisions in the
United States involve deer, researchers have found. In 1995,
the annual number of these collisions was estimated at more
than 1 million, causing 211 human fatalities, 29,000 injuries
and more than $1 billion in property damage.