Press "Enter" to skip to content

Roadkill: We joke about it, but it’s no joke

Essay by Mark Matthews

Wildlife – November 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE BIG BUCK suddenly appears in my headlights like a statue standing in the middle of the two-lane highway. I brake, swerve to the right trying not to go off the road. I think I’m past the deer, then it lowers its head and seems to ram into my right fender on purpose, as if it were fending off a competing stag.

The headlight goes black, I hear the thump of metal on soft flesh, the animal’s face rakes past the side window. My stomach sinks to my feet. I’ve killed another animal.

Although I don’t have an “I Brake For Animals” bumper sticker, I am a very cautious and defensive driver. I slow down in the evening, and on curves. I keep a sharp eye on the roadside ahead. Still, I’ve hit three deer in the last five years. I suppose I would have gotten rid of my battered truck by now if I hadn’t rebuilt the engine just before hitting my second victim. Now the body work bill is way beyond my means and no one would buy it.

Practically no driver is innocent of highway carnage. In fact, we’ve killed so many animals and seen so many carcasses by the roadside that we’ve grown insensitive to it. “Sleeping deer, sleeping dog, sleeping bear,” is what we tell young children. But there’s plenty more in the woods, don’t worry.

However, that may not be the case for some animals. Researchers have studied the effects of dirt roads on wildlife populations in remote areas, but few have looked into the effects of paved highways. The few who have offer some startling insight.

Since 1981, 65 percent of endangered Florida panther deaths have been attributed to vehicle collisions. Cars and trucks in Texas have taken a toll on the endangered ocelot, reducing the population to about 80 animals. In one year near Banff National Park in Alberta, seven gray wolves were killed by vehicles, two by trains. That equaled that year’s litters of pups.

In upstate New York, at a Canada lynx reintroduction site, 17 of 38 radio-collared animals were killed in traffic collisions. And again in Florida, where traffic on some roads increased 100 percent in recent years, the collision-caused mortality for black bears increased 1,800 percent.

Not only large mammals are affected Near the Ninepipes Reservoir in Montana, drivers smash hundreds of painted turtles each summer on Highway 93. The same thing happens to salamanders in Massachusetts, endangered toads near Houston, and endangered desert tortoises in California.

Also in the Gold Rush State, many barn owls are struck and killed as they scout roadsides at night for mice.

Even migrating fish like bull trout and salmon are affected when they cannot negotiate poorly designed culverts under roads. And that doesn’t take into account the millions of deer, elk, moose, squirrels, raccoons, rabbits, birds and other common animals that die on the roads each year.

Historically, the federal highway system has received exemptions from the environmental process because of its early relationship to national defense. Now, more than 2 percent of the lower 48 is covered by roads and their roadsides. That’s as much territory as within the state of Georgia.

But the ecological impacts of roads significantly affect a much larger area, researchers say. Noise, water pollution, habitat fragmentation and exhaust emissions are some of the far reaching by-products of roads and traffic that may kill or keep certain species of animals out of an area.

There is some good news though. Engineers finally are beginning to take wildlife into account as they plan roads. Congress even approved some funding for wildlife mitigation projects in the $198 billion Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. There is potentially $3 billion available for wildlife mitigation.

But the money must be shared with at least nine other programs including projects like preserving historic transportation structures, getting rid of billboards, and converting abandoned rail lines to trails.

Structures such as wildlife underpasses and overpasses have proven successful in Europe and Canada. Florida panthers are faring much better since 24 underpasses were constructed along Alligator Alley north of the Everglades.

But environmentalists must be sharp if our society is to finally reduce animal carnage along roads. They must identify key wildlife corridors and make sure engineers install some type of safe passage for animals during the multi-billion dollar construction projects aimed at rebuilding roads across the West in the next decade.

And it won’t be money wasted on animals. Ask anyone who has totaled their vehicle or been injured in a crash with a moose, elk or grizzly bear.

Mark Matthews lives in Missoula, Montana. He is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado.