We look at it from an operations prospective. We identify higher priority locations and basically bring wildlife crossings into an existing process. —Brandon Weston, UDOT environmental services director
LOGAN — Motorists involved in collisions with wildlife are faced with nearly $7,000 on average in repair costs, amounting to more than $8 billion nationwide annually, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
But a recent study by Utah State University research assistant professor Patricia Cramer shows that structures permitting wildlife crossings under busy highways are saving Utahns millions of dollars in collision costs each year.
In particular, two crossings near the intersection of I-15 and I-70 north of Beaver have reduced vehicle-wildlife collisions in the area by as much as 90 percent, according to the study. With what motorists would have paid in collision repairs, those structures "paid for themselves" in less than three years, according to UDOT engineers.
Cramer collaborated with UDOT and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to record what species use the crossings and how often. While only 15 of the state’s 44 structures were monitored, images from motion-activated cameras showed just how effective these structures are.
“My cameras were able to capture 30,000 instances of mule deer using the structures” from 2007 to 2013, Cramer said.
While most vehicle-wildlife collisions are caused by deer, larger animals such as elk and moose often cause more severe crashes and are less likely to use the crossings, Cramer said.
"Elk are very difficult to convince to use any kind of structure to go beneath highways," she said. "They're my problem child."
Few structures are built specifically for wildlife crossings. Most crossings are retrofitted from existing bridges and culverts, said Brandon Weston, UDOT environmental services director.
"We look at it from an operations prospective," Weston said. "We identify higher priority locations and basically bring wildlife crossings into an existing process."
Some crossings have cost as much as $5 million to ensure they meet UDOT safety standards, he said, but most structures aren't that pricey.
DWR habitat section chief Ashley Green works closely with UDOT as a biological adviser in preventing vehicle-wildlife collisions.
"First and foremost, we're concerned with motorist safety," Green said. "We try to help plan and implement safe highway projects to keep animals off the road. By putting some of these structures where they're needed, it's limiting the accidents for motorists."
Although Utah has come a long way in avoiding vehicle-wildlife collisions, they're likely to continue as communities expand farther into wildlife habitat, he said.
"It's a statewide problem," Green said. "As our population expands, there's less space for wildlife. We have to find ways to live together."