Clash With Nature

On Montana roads, encounters between deer and humans are common — and sometimes deadly

Story by Kyle Spurr

Two deer cut across Mount Sentinel in Missoula. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, these animals cause nearly 1.5 million car accidents each year. (Photo by Daniel Doherty)

Two glowing eyes stared back at him as he drove down Interstate 90 from Helena to Missoula. It was 3 a.m., and as he approached, the headlights on his car revealed a deer behind the shining saucers. The two sources of light met at that moment. He applied the brakes on the Pontiac Grand Prix, but it was too late. The compact car crashed into the deer, killing it on impact.

“It’s as if we were destined to hit,” said Victor Johnson, 19, a sophomore at the University of Montana. “We paused at the same time.”

Once Johnson had pulled the car over to the shoulder, the helpless severity of the situation sunk in. The dented metal and cracked headlight cover brought a mix of emotions.

“I slowed down hoping to allow him to pass,” Johnson said with frustration. “But it’s like they want to get hit.”

Animal-related crashes happen frequently in Montana. From 1998 to 2007 there was an average of 1,850 such accidents each year. Three people died, according to the latest available data from the Montana Department of Transportation. Many more crashes go unreported, though they ought to be for official records and insurance coverage, according to the Montana Highway Patrol. Collisions with animals are covered under the comprehensive portions of an auto insurance policy.

To help prevent a collision with deer, the Montana Highway Patrol advises drivers to be extra careful during dusk and dawn. Both are active times for deer. Also, use high-beam headlights when safe, wear a seat belt, and don’t swerve if a deer crosses.

“I don’t think there can really be any solutions,” Johnson said of the crashes. “Maybe lower the speed limits or put out more warning signs.”

University of Montana biology professor Kerry Foresman disagrees.

Foresman said the Montana Department of Transportation has helped fund research looking into the installation of underpasses and overpasses on the local highways. His lab has received nearly $1 million from the state and federal departments of transportation. More than $5 million have been spent on these projects throughout Montana. Before work can be done creating the passes, Foresman said, his job is to understand where they should go.

“We set up cameras inside of the culverts to show animals’ behaviors,” Foresman said. “We set up either a single camera with heat and motion detectors, or video systems that do the same thing, just takes movies of the animals.”

Foresman and his students have studied thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of movie footage. They found patterns in animal movements, including deer.

“Deer still have a pattern, they like to walk along the creeks,” Foresman said. “If you can know where an animal is moving, you know where to put a culvert.”

Though it might sound like a simple equation, Foresman said the assignment is complicated.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” Foresman said. “Sometimes a culvert can’t go exactly where deer want to go. Every species has its own preference.”

Foresman said it’s difficult to find the right areas because the deer cross wherever they want. They don’t adapt to a changing environment.

“They are stupid in that way, like a dog or a cat or anything else that flashes out,” Foresman said. “They are not going to adapt, we have to adapt.”

Part of adapting is to understand what time of the year these accidents are likely to happen. Foresman said early summer is when there are the most deer.

“They start giving birth in mid to late May,” he said. “There will be a lot of babies popping around which means in the summer there will be a lot crossing the road not knowing what to do.”

Even though there are more deer in early summer, Foresman said animals are bound to cross the roads no matter the season. The real problem stems from more roads being built, creating fewer habitats for deer.

As far as Foresman is concerned, funding gives the development of culverts the best chance to succeed.

“There is a lot of money going into it at the federal level to try to save the animals and save the people,” he said. “Obviously they wouldn’t put that money in just to save deer; they put the money in to save deer from killing people.”

University of Montana biology professor Kerry Foresman stands next to a culvert with a “critter crawl.” Foresman has been researching the effectiveness of culverts for the past 15 years. (Photo by Todd Goodrich)

Foresman and his students have also helped by establishing a state law enforcing culvert installation on new highways. The wildlife biologist is part-owner of a patent on a “critter crawl,” a shelf that allows smaller animals to successfully use underpasses.

“I’m not building the bridges,” Foresman said. “I’m just deciding where they go.”

Besides keeping animals safe around roadways, Foreman wants to help people.

“I’ve had friends get killed,” Foreman said. “It’s really not that uncommon around here.”

Continuing down the dusk-lit road, Johnson knew the accident could have been worse. Yes, there was the smell of burning carcass from the radiator still filling his car, but he could have been the one lying lifeless on the side of the road. Instead, he is safe and his insurance will cover the damages.

“It’s not always the person’s fault or the deer’s fault,” Johnson said. “It’s just one of those crazy things.”

After all, he said, the odds of a deadly encounter with wildlife are really low.

“It’s just two parties combining for a really unfortunate situation.”

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