Video shows success of Idaho wildlife underpass

By Katy Moeller

The Idaho Statesman

Published: Wednesday, July 4 2012 7:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this March 17, 2012 file photo, Heidi Heitkamp, the North Dakota Democratic Party's endorsed candidate for the U.S. Senate, speaks to delegates at the North Dakota Democratic state convention in Grand Forks, N.D. The constitutional win for President Barack Obama and Democrats on health care overhaul is reopening political cuts within the party over the unpopular law. Vulnerable Democratic incumbents and candidates, including Heitkamp, cautiously welcomed the court?s judgment but argued that the law could be improved. (AP Photo/Shawna Noel Widdel, File)

Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An average of 2,600 vehicles travel to and from the Boise area on Idaho 21 each day.

An estimated 90 percent of a herd of 5,000 to 8,000 mule deer and a herd of 300 to 1,800 elk cross the highway each fall, when they come down from the mountains to the Boise Front and the Lucky Peak area.

Some deer dart across the highway, dodging traffic. Others linger on and near the road.

Ed Bottum, a wildlife habitat biologist who has worked for Idaho Fish and Game for 25 years, recalled seeing a huge amount of blood on the highway after a crash a couple of years ago. It was the result of a motorcycle colliding with a deer — the pregnant doe was split in half. The motorcyclist spent the night at a Boise hospital but didn't suffer any life-threatening injuries.

"I found little pieces of that motorcycle 100 feet away," said Bottum, who urges motorists to slow down and drive cautiously when the deer are migrating, generally October through April.

To reduce such collisions, Fish and Game biologists worked with Idaho Transportation Department officials to create a safe passage under the highway — Idaho's first wildlife underpass.

With $800,000 in federal stimulus money, the underpass was completed in October 2010. ITD also installed an 8-foot-tall fence with galvanized steel posts and wire along the highway to help keep the deer off the road.

Fish and Game biologists have installed additional fencing on the eastern slopes above the highway to guide deer to the underpass, but more is needed to make the underpass work best. They need to raise about $140,000 to finish the last half of the roughly 1.5 miles of fencing.

The location — past the Mores Creek Bridge, or High Bridge, at milepost 18.2 — is a collision "hot spot" where a large number of deer have been hit through the years.

From 1979 to 2001, cars killed 159 deer in the area of the wildlife underpass — about seven per year.

The number killed in that area this migration season: zero.

The biologists say other factors, including migration numbers, also likely contributed to the drop in collisions this year.

Counting how many deer are hit by vehicles along Idaho 21 northeast of Boise each year is relatively easy.

The annual tally ranges from 50 to more than 200 for the 33-mile stretch of road from the highway's intersection with Warm Springs Avenue to Robie Creek.

But it's difficult to determine how many deer (and humans) have been saved from violent deaths since the underpass was installed.

There is ample evidence that deer and other animals are using the underpass. Cameras have captured deer, elk and other wildlife passing safely under the highway, often in groups.

"There's tracks all the time," Bottum said. "It works. We know it works.

"I'm confident saying there are hundreds of animals that use it."

Bottum and a fellow biologist had hoped to get a count of the animals from the still images, but that proved difficult because animals aren't one-way travelers. They go back and forth and meander.

ITD officials are pleased with the results, even if savings in lives, injuries and damaged vehicles can't be quantified.

"We believe the crossing to be a great success to date and expect that when the rest of the wildlife fence is up, it will only increase its effectiveness," said Greg Vitley, ITD Southwest Idaho environmental planner.

He said it has generated enthusiasm for partnerships and other "vehicle/wildlife mitigation" elsewhere in Idaho.

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