The Salt Lake Tribune (Utah) - by Lee Davidson
Far fewer cars are crashing into deer, elk and moose along Interstate 80 in Parleys Canyon after federal stimulus money paid for a high fence to reduce roadkill along a deadly three-mile segment.
But that good news comes with some bad. Officials are finding that wildlife refuse to use underpasses, where the fences are meant to funnel them. Instead, many of those animals walk up vehicle entrance ramps and are killed.
When officials spent $395,000 in 2009 to install a 7-foot-6-inch fence between the East Canyon and Lambs Canyon exits, they said it was anyone’s guess as to how effectively it might prevent animals from crossing the freeway ¬— but argued it would be worth the experiment.
Data requested by The Salt Lake Tribune from the Utah Department of Transportation show that accidents involving wildlife along that freeway section were down 71 percent in the first 20 months after installation compared with rates during the 22 months before the fence was built.
In that period before the barrier was in place, 58 wildlife-related crashes occurred there. After the fence, only 15 took place.
“It’s a positive sign. But I don’t think we have enough data yet to know what exactly the effect of the fence has been,” said Brandon Weston, environmental services director for UDOT. It hasn’t solved all the problems in the area, he added, but it’s a step in the right direction.
“What we’re trying to do, especially in the Mountain Dell and Lambs Canyon area, is trying to steer wildlife under underpasses,” he said. “We’re not completely eliminating access across the corridors, but are trying to steer them into safer locations to cross: lower-volume roads or even stream crossings where there are no roads.”
But the critters are not using underpasses at Mountain Dell and Lambs Canyon, where fences funnel them, said Patricia Cramer, a research assistant professor at Utah State University. She has aimed cameras at those underpasses for the past two years.
“At Mountain Dell, we have no record of any animals going through,” she said. “And in Lambs Canyon, six deer have gone through in two years, so it’s not quite working.”
One problem may be noise at the underpasses. “If you stand underneath either one of those bridges, the joints make a very loud banging sound, similar to gunshots,” Cramer said. “It could be the one thing keeping them from going under the bridges.”
Also, insufficient funding was available for the fencing project to install metal cattle guards (extra long so deer cannot jump them) at entrance and exit ramps. Instead, UDOT painted white strips across the road to try to fool animals into thinking the lines were a cattle guard.
Cramer said the move didn’t work. She had a camera on a ramp at Mountain Dell for three months, and saw about 115 elk, deer and moose walking up it. “They walked right over those painted lines and walked onto the highway. Sometimes they come back, and sometimes they have been killed. ... They learn very quickly that they can continue business as usual by just using the entrance ramps to go on the highway.”
It is a bit of a mystery, Cramer added, what animals not using the ramps are doing — whether they simply stay on one side of the fence or are finding other places in the canyon outside the view of cameras to cross.
Weston said that UDOT and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources have developed a written strategy for I-80 from the mouth of Parleys to its junction with I-84 at Echo that looks “at where the major migration routes are, where the animals’ access to water is, and the hot spots where we were getting most of the hits along I-80.” The section with the fence was one of those hot spots.
Weston said the plan recommends where fences and crossings should be built and where cattle guards should be added. But money has usually been scarce. The gift of stimulus money for the experiment in lower Parleys Canyon was an exception.
Weston said extended, more comprehensive — and expensive — projects have been completed to stop crashes with wildlife in such places as Interstate 70 near Richfield and on Interstate 15 near Cedar City, including building special underpasses just for wildlife. “Those are showing some really positive results,” he said, including reduction of crashes by 90 percent or more over many years.