KANAB — More than a thousand deer have a new route to help them migrate safely between Utah and Arizona, and it may save human lives as well.
Work crews in southern Utah are wrapping up a project on U.S. 89 that's expected to dramatically reduce the number of deer collisions with cars. Experts say it will definitely save motorists a substantial amount of property damage, and it should lower the risk of fatal crashes like the one that killed three people several years ago.
Twice a year, between 1,000 and 2,000 deer cross U.S. 89 between Lake Powell and Kanab. They move back and forth between winter range in northern Arizona and summer range in southern Utah. Most of them cross the highway along an 11-mile stretch centered about 25 miles east of Kanab. It's long been a hot spot for deer-car collisions.
"How bad? We estimate there's approximately 100 to 105 vehicle collisions a year with the deer," said Monte Aldridge of the Utah Department of Transportation.
In recent weeks, UDOT crews have installed 8-foot fences on both sides of the highway along that 11-mile stretch. They've also built three large tunnels to supplement four small culverts that were installed previously. Instead of crossing over the highway, deer will be encouraged to go under it.
"As the animals encounter the fence, they'll follow along it until they hit an opening, and they'll go through the crossing without crossing over the highway," Aldridge said.
The deer in question are part of a premium trophy herd. Money for the project is mostly from state and federal agencies, but Utah Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife also contributed a share.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources worked with UDOT on the project.
"It's maybe not a solution, but it's a great, great improvement," DWR biologist Rhett Boswell said.
The project won an endorsement from an environmental activist as well. New Yorker John Davis is in the middle of Trek West, a 5,000-mile trek from Mexico to Canada to promote improved and well-connected corridors for wildlife. Davis made a detour from his trek to help state officials publicize the project.
"It is possible for us to save and restore America's natural heritage, and I think we should view that as one of our major national goals," Davis said.
He called the U.S. 89 project "a very important step in that direction."
"I think we all expect it will be very successful in saving lives," Davis said.
According to Boswell, the state is considering implementing similar projects at about a half-dozen other locations.