What is a wildlife overpass, or underpass, and does Wisconsin have any? Why or why not? Valid questions, to be certain, and the Masked Biologist has a few answers for us.
Recently I saw an article from Smithsonian Magazine about a wildlife overpass in Utah that is getting significant use from a variety of wildlife species much earlier than expected. This is cause for celebration for local wildlife and road authorities in Utah, for certain. It has gotten quite a bit of attention lately because this wildlife overpass has motion sensing cameras, usually called game cameras, trail cams or trap cameras, in place to record numbers and species of animals putting it to use. They put together a brief video and posted it on Facebook, titled Parley’s Canyon Wildlife Overpass 2020. You can watch a montage of creatures trotting across the overpass, some clearly less comfortable than others. Bobcats and coyotes, black bears, deer and moose make their way past the cameras—even porcupine and marmots make their way into the frame.
So what is a wildlife overpass, and does Wisconsin have any? A wildlife overpass is a very simple concept. It is an artificially constructed crossing over a busy road or highway that allows wildlife to safely get from one side to the other. And, no, Wisconsin doesn’t have any. We should, we really should, but we don’t. Parley’s Canyon in Utah was identified as “slaughter row” because of the high number of animal vehicle collisions on I-80 through there. In the two years prior to the 2018 overpass construction, there were 106 such collisions in the area, including 2 moose and 98 deer—not our smaller white-tailed deer either, but the larger mule deer. According to the Western Transportation Institute, installing a wildlife crossing with fencing, rails and barriers to help direct the animals to the crossing location can reduce vehicle collisions by 85 to 95%. That is a drastic reduction.
Wisconsin is near the top of the list every year of states in which drivers are most likely to hit a deer according to the national State Farm insurance survey. In 2017-18, the most recent survey year we were at number 4 behind West Virginia, Montana and Pennsylvania. We kill a lot of deer in this state every year, whether hunting or driving. The Milwaukee journal sentinel reported that, In 2019, there were 18,414 reported deer crashes that resulted in injuries to 556 people, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Nine people, six of them on motorcycles, died in crashes with deer in 2019. Even if you aren’t injured or killed in a deer collision, the average vehicle repair insurance claim is $4,341, so hitting deer can result in almost $80 million in damage a year.
Now we don’t know how many of those 18,414 crashes resulted in a dead deer, but we know that every year state and local governments pay to have car killed deer hauled off of major roads and discarded. Those are deer taken out of the pre-hunt population and often wasted, although I know a few people myself included who have picked up car kills and salvaged whatever meat they could. Reducing collisions with deer in high traffic locations would save lives, reduce repair and insurance costs, and take pressure off the deer herd. Taking the discussion a step further, deer are not the only wildlife species in Wisconsin that get hit by cars. I know every year there are numerous game animals like black bear and turkey, furbearers like beaver, otter, bobcat, even specially managed species like wolves and elk are hit by vehicles.
Other states like Florida, Colorado, California, and Wyoming are all reducing damage, injury and loss by investing in infrastructure to give wildlife safe passage across the highways we put there. So why not Wisconsin? I can only guess that it comes down to money. After all, our state has not really wanted to invest in maintaining our highways, much less improving them, in recent years. I have seen speed limits go up, and more roundabouts and cloverleaf ramps to improve traffic flow, but nothing to reduce wildlife vehicle collisions. An overpass would probably cost tens of millions of dollars, and those dollars would have to come from taxes. Maybe it isn’t money, maybe it is lack of awareness. Or, maybe citizens haven’t brought it to their elected representatives or state officials as an issue. Maybe it’s all of the above. But I know it isn’t apathy; Wisconsinites love their wildlife, especially here in the Northwoods, and take small steps every day to protect them. Maybe its time to take a bigger one.