While traveling in Costa Rica last fall, Michael and I noticed small, but sturdy, wire bridges above the roadways in several places.
These were wildlife crossings for monkeys and sloths to cross out of harm’s way.
This got me wondering if Virginia was doing anything to reduce the terrible carnage on our roads.
According to an October 2015 Virginia Transportation Research Council report, Virginia is consistently among the top 10 states with the highest number of deer-vehicle collisions, with more than 56,000 reported per year since 2007.
The Virginia Department of Transportation targeted a section of I-64 on and near Afton Mountain because of the high rate of deer kill.
Bridget Donaldson, lead scientist of the 2015 report, said both deer and bear are frequently hit on this foggy stretch of highway, usually resulting in the death of the animal and significant damage to automobiles, if not injuries to the humans in them.
Because building underpasses or overpasses for wildlife is so expensive, researchers decided to see if they could funnel wildlife under an existing underpass and a large box culvert.
Two years of camera and animal carcass removal data were analyzed to gain a better understanding of deer and black bear activity. Other animals also used the underpass, with coyotes second only to deer.
Cameras showed about half the deer were already using these passages, but just as many didn’t. We all know that deer have become too habituated to roadways.
Crossing attempts resulted in 7.5 deer-vehicle collisions per year on the one-mile highway segments adjacent to each unfenced underpass.
The cameras showed that deer activity was significantly higher during October and November, when deer are in rut, and that the crossings were concentrated near a stream.
As a result, VDOT installed fencing along the roadside adjacent to the existing large underpasses to funnel the animals underneath. It also installed animal advisory message signs along I-64 in the Afton Mountain area.
In the last two years, researchers found a 90 percent reduction in collisions. “We’re already finding it’s working better than we thought,” Donaldson said.
Messages were displayed from dusk through dawn from October through November along a 16.7-mile segment of I-64 between Waynesboro and Charlottesville to alert drivers to the presence of deer.
Donaldson said they alternated nights when the warning signs were on and found there were 50 percent fewer collisions with the signs on.
Using signage during the fall, VDOT estimates the reduction in collisions will save $595,500 to $1.2 million during the service life of the signs.
Donaldson hopes the state will expand its efforts to other areas, and in the meantime, that drivers will pay more attention to wildlife along our roads.
Many smaller species are declining because of road collisions and fragmentation. A project in Charlottesville is attempting to keep salamanders off a road near a wetland.
Motorists should also refrain from littering, Donaldson said. Anything with a scent — from apple cores to drink containers to food wrappers — attracts animals to the roadside.