Hazards on highways: Give wildlife a brake this spring

Heading to work yesterday morning I saw what looked like a rock in the middle of the road until it moved.

Almost on top of it and traveling at 55-miles-per-hour, I recognized it was a box turtle and positioned my car to keep the turtle between the wheels. Then I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw a line of of cars bearing down as it headed into the left land and toward two more lanes of fast moving traffic.

I reached a turnaround in a matter of seconds and swung back, down the off ramp and up the on ramp to head back to rescue the turtle only to find it smashed in the road.


Wildlife and roadways don't mix. I travel 25 miles to work each day and often find the roads littered with the carcasses of animals, in spring and fall that means deer. Raccoons, opossums and groundhogs just coming out of their dens. And cats feral or stray, I wonder, were they tom cats on the prowl or pregnant females searching for food? Only a handful of times in ten years have I seen the body of a dead dog lying on the shoulder. I'd like to believe this means there are few free-roaming dogs, even in the rural area where I live.

Spring also is the deadly season for turtles, frogs and robins. Turtles and frogs seem to rise up and get flushed onto roadways after the rain. Frogs and box turtles can be easily handled and relocated near to where you found them. Experts say to move them to the side of the road off the shoulder in the direction they were facing. Snapping turtles are trickier. I once got into a tug of war with a snapping turtle on a back road in Virginia as I tried to sweep him off the road with my suede riding chaps. What I should have done I learned was find a stick and place it in front of the snapping turtle. When it clamps its jaws down, voila, you can gently drag it off the road.

And pity the poor robin, beautiful harbinger of spring and the bird species that most often falls victim to fast-moving cars. Robins are the C-130s of backyard birds. They fly low and slow, often swooping in a downward trajectory from trees or berms across the road. They are easy targets. But it's just as easy to avoid hitting them if you ease up on the accelerator or brake lightly as you see one swoop in front of you.

(Bear passes under U.S. Hwy 93 through the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, Photo/Montana Transportation Dept.)

Several mid-Atlantic states have joined other states, as well as Canada and a number of European counties that have built bypasses, overpasses and underpasses aimed at facilitating the natural movement of animals like Florida panthers and the Big Horned sheep in Colorado.

New Jersey dedicated several abandoned overpasses to wildlife along Route 78 east of Allentown. In the Washington D.C. suburbs and elsewhere tunnels have been constructed for deer and other wildlife. A study in the Journal of Wildlife Management found a North Carolina highway project that used a combination of fencing and tunnels reduced deer-car collisions by as much as 58 percent

Pennsylvania - which has the highest number of deer-car collisions in the nation according to Erie Insurance - has done nothing. Total spent on hunting animals in PA? Millions and millions. Total spent protecting animals? Zero. With every highway project PennDot puts in a three-foot wire fence for reasons I am not aware of. Three feet is like a curb for deer and other wildlife can go right through. The cost of adding a few feet to the height is too prohibitive PennDot told me once.

The agency did spend roughly $150,000 several years ago installing deer sensors on Rte 322 near Harrisburg in a pilot project that failed. PennDot said the technology didn't work. Alas, similar technology was abandoned in Indiana after the state determined the sensors placed on the Indiana Toll Road were too difficult to mantain. 

Still the record of success with overpasses and underpasses in protecting native wildlife and people is too compelling to ignore.