Categorized | Imperiled Wildlife

Is America on a crash course with wildlife?

Photo of deer crossing a roadEvery year, State Farm releases their top ten worst states for deer vehicle collisions.  The 2010 list held no surprises with West Virginia in the number one slot for the fourth year in a row. Drivers in West Virginia face a 1 in 42 chance of hitting a deer sometime in the next 12 months.  The list is perennially dominated by Midwestern states, including Iowa, Michigan, the Dakotas, Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Montana, Pennsylvania and Arkansas – also states with abundant white tail deer – are also there.

America has had a long standing love affair with cars. Ninety five percent of American households have at least one car and we spend about 20 percent of our income on transportation. We’ve built more than four million miles of roads, providing us with unprecedented access and mobility.  But our mobility comes with a price, for both people and wildlife.  Wildlife vehicle collisions claim the lives of 200 Americans and result in 29,000 human injuries every year. Recent estimates indicate between 725,000 and 1,500,000 animals are struck on our roads annually and when we include smaller species such as amphibians and reptiles, the body count goes up to a million vertebrates a day.

Roadkill is nothing new, but statistics show the numbers are increasing dramatically. While the number of auto accidents has remained steady, the number of wildlife vehicle collisions has increased by 50 percent over the last decade. The miles traveled by U.S. motorists increased just two percent in five years, but the number of deer vehicle collisions jumped 20 percent in that same time period. Wildlife-vehicle collisions now represent one out of every 20 reported motor vehicle collisions, and they occur every 26 seconds.

Wildlife vehicle collisions put a dent in our wallets too.  The average property damage cost of each accident is $3,103.  When you add in the loss of work and medical costs, those numbers rise even higher.  The Western Transportation Institute estimated a collision with a deer costs an average $7890, while an elk hit costs $17,100 and a moose hit costs a whopping $28,100.  Add to that the costs of law enforcement, emergency services, road maintenance crews and wildlife management personnel and the total annual cost associated with wildlife vehicle collisions is nearly $8.4 billion.

Are wildlife vehicle collisions a necessary evil?  As long as there are cars on the road, we may never completely eliminate accidents, but we can take measures to reduce the frequency and severity.  Just like many of our roads now include guard rails to prevent cars from veering off, we can include structures to allow wildlife to move safely across the landscape without endangering passing motorists.  Wildlife underpasses and overpasses allow animals to get where they need to go by passing under or over highways without entering the right of way.  Some transportation agencies have begun building wildlife crossings but we have a long way to go before it is standard practice.

Congress can help state transportation agencies make that transition by adding wildlife-friendly provisions in the upcoming highway bill reauthorization. With the midterm elections behind us, many believe the highway bill is one of the few bipartisan efforts with a chance for success in a contentious Congress.  As luck would have it, two of the State Farm top ten states have congressional delegates in key positions on the committees in charge of reauthorizing the highway bill.  Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) chairs the Environment and Public Works committee and Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV-3rd) is expected to claim the ranking member position on the House committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.  They have a tremendous opportunity to help their states and American motorists across the country by instituting policy changes to reduce wildlife vehicle collisions and avert a crash course with wildlife.

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- who has written 5 posts on dotWild.

Trisha White is the director of the Habitat and Highways Program, which seeks to reduce the impact of roads and highways on wildlife and encourage state and local authorities to incorporate wildlife conservation into transportation and community planning.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.