GUEST OPINION: Let the animals roam

By on June 30, 2015

Support wildlife crossings to decrease wildlife-vehicle collisions, protect migration paths in the valley

This is becoming a more common sight on the roads of Teton County. (Credit: JH Conservation Alliance)

This is becoming a more common sight on the roads of Teton County. Photo: JH Conservation Alliance

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The driver screamed as the windshield shattered and the START bus came to a crashing halt on the side of Highway 22. As I looked around making sure everyone was OK (thankfully everyone was), the driver announced, “I need everyone to get off the bus. We hit a moose.” I’ll never forget the look in the moose’s eyes as the last glimmer of life left its body.

On average, 15 moose are killed every year on Teton County roads.

Winter 2014, the heroic Corp. Roger Schultz of the Jackson Police Department saved the life of a woman who hit two deer with her truck on Broadway. “Flustered from the collision, she had gotten out of the vehicle but forgot to put it in park,” wrote. “The woman had one arm on the door and the other on the steering wheel, with her legs dragging on the road. Schultz gunned his patrol car, cut off the oncoming traffic and grabbed the woman before she sustained serious injury.”

On average, 114 mule deer are killed every year on Teton County roads.

On another night, there was the same story. My wife and I had chartered a bus to shuttle people from the Village to our wedding at Dornan’s so people didn’t have to drive. As we headed back to the Village on Highway 390 the bus came to a screeching stop. We all went flying, but no one was hurt.

“I’m sorry,” the driver said. “A herd of elk just ran in front of us.”

Those elk were much luckier than the 35 that are killed on average every year on Teton County roads.

Then there’s the time I killed a badger.

Two weeks ago, I was driving my wife and kids back from a relaxing weekend of visiting family in Helena, Mont., heading south on Highway 87 ascending Raynolds Pass. All of a sudden my wife Stacy screamed as a large badger ran across the road directly in our path. I felt like I was in a movie where time slows to a crawl as my brain scrambled to make a decision.

Swerve and put my family at risk? Or stay the course and likely hit the badger? The story of Steve Deutsch instantly popped into my head. A decade ago Steve swerved to avoid a moose trying to cross Highway 26 near Moran and rolled his truck in a ditch. He suffered traumatic brain injury, a seizure and a massive stroke, and a laundry list of broken bones. When he came out of a coma, 10 days later, Steve was completely paralyzed on his left side and has had profound difficulties speaking, reading, seeing and writing.

That millisecond of hesitation thinking of Steve made my decision for me and our front right tire slammed into the badger with a resounding thud. Our daughter Piper yelled, “What was that?” Both Stacy and I responded in unison, “Nothing,” not wanting to upset our kids.

I love badgers. They don’t care. Except about their babies. Given that this incident happened during the day in the springtime it’s likely I killed a mother badger foraging for food to bring to her helpless pups patiently waiting in their burrow. The thought of killing a badger makes me sick to my stomach. The thought of a burrow full of badger pups losing their mother to my front right tire brings tears to my eyes. The fact that being hit by cars is a leading cause of adult badger mortality is just plain wrong.

Nearly every one of us has seen wildlife killed after trying to cross the road. Most of us know someone who has been in a wildlife-vehicle collision. And too many of us have experienced the trauma of being in one, too. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can protect wildlife and our families by making it safe for wildlife to cross the road.

Wildlife crossings are bridges and tunnels designed to help wildlife safely cross the road. Combined with fences along roads to funnel animals to the crossings, wildlife crossings have proven to be the most effective measure to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions across America and around the world. While it’s helpful to slow down and pay attention for wildlife, the facts, data and our own experiences in Jackson Hole, show us this just isn’t enough.

The best thing about wildlife crossings is that they work. In Wyoming, Montana, and Canada wildlife crossings have reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions by nearly 90 percent. The Trapper’s Point project near Pinedale, including six underpasses and two overpasses, has become world-renowned for reducing pronghorn and mule deer collisions and for protecting the “path of the pronghorn” migration route.

How often does our community face a problem with such an obvious solution? Now, it’s time to get moving.

Last week, thanks to hundreds of people speaking up and collaboration between numerous local nonprofits, the Teton County commission voted to fund the development of a wildlife crossings master plan for the valley. This plan will provide an objective, systematic, data-driven blueprint for protecting wildlife and our families by making it safe for animals to cross the road. Since crossings may not be appropriate everywhere in Teton County, we need our agencies, wildlife experts and people to weigh in as the county develops this plan.

Please join dozens of your friends and neighbors over the next year to work with county and agency staff to develop the best plan possible for reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions. Then, let’s work together to get a network of wildlife crossings built so badger moms and every one of us can make it home safely to our pups.

About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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