Living in the Wasatch back means sharing the landscape and roads with wildlife. A recent study found Park City and Heber have five of the top 10 hot spots for wildlife collisions.
Dr. Patricia Cramer is a wildlife ecologist who specializes in transportation ecology. In 2018, she was hired by the Utah Department of Transportation to conduct a wildlife/vehicle collision study. Her findings show that Wasatch and Summit County are in the top 10 most dangerous roads for wildlife conflicts.
“And I started working with the departments of transportation back in the early 2000’s to bring together this idea that transportation corridors for vehicles and people also have to take into consideration the environment and ecology of what's going on around them so that landscape, the movement of water, the movement of animals. And so transportation ecology is that next layer where our transportation corridors bisect natural areas and wildlife movement and of course the science and the practice of doing something about it."
Cramer says they have compelling evidence to show that wildlife bridges are effective methods to manage collisions. She says a system near Monticello, Utah is one example of how crossing structures prevent vehicle/wildlife crashes.
“The wildlife crossing, they just finished building a few years ago, we just finished researching that and it's the most successful wildlife crossing in Utah that we've monitored, and we've monitored about 20 different ones and 40 different structures total. In that structure just south of Monticello, on average 47 times a day mule deer went through it which is just avoiding so many dozens, if not hundreds of crashes. So, tens of thousands of times, mule deer moved through that structure in just a year and a half."
UDOT installed a wildlife bridge that spans I-80 at the top of Parley Summit in 2018. Video footage captures wildlife using the bridge with much more frequency than DWR biologists expected. They thought it would take several years for animals to learn how to access and teach their young how to use it. However, Cramer says they haven’t got any official data yet on its effectiveness.
“We’re seeing all kinds of animals going over even the more skittish animals like elk and mountain lion.”
The organization Save People Save Wildlife was instrumental in working with UDOT to fund the I-80 project. Now they have their sights set on addressing the frequent collisions that happen on SR 224 along a 2-mile stretch by the McPolin Farm. The local elk herd crosses the road morning and night in the winter months moving from the farm pastures to the Round Valley area. It is one of the top ten hot spots on Cramer’s list.
US 189 near Deer Creek State Park, another hot spot, has recently been addressed with mitigation work because wildlife crashes were so frequent.
“UDOT was planning a project but it hadn't gone in yet and over those years from 2010 to 2015 we just found over 5 and a half vehicle crashes per year per mile in that stretch that was a very, very bad area. In 2016 UDOT put in a wildlife crossing structure, another one and miles of fencing and it's reduced the crashes there by 75%.”
Cramer says all roads leading into and out of Heber are hot spots for wildlife/vehicle collisions.
"Basically, this city is in an area that's the lowland and winter habitat for a lot of wildlife and of course a lot of wildlife live among the agricultural fields and so every road north, south and west out of Heber are hot spot areas.”
Cramer says her recommendations include continued monitoring and data collection about hot spots and information on species migration and habits. She says collaring and tracking herd movement as well as detailed GIS mapping are ways to use technology to help prevent collisions. She suggests UDOT and the Division of Wildlife Resources should create a memorandum of understanding that will ensure the agencies continue to work together into the future. She says it’s most important for communities to work with UDOT in the planning stages for future road projects.
“One thing we all need to educate ourselves is to how UDOT works. And, then get in early because if you think about it the things that are really important to UDOT engineers are time and money and if for instance state road 224 let's get it in the state transportation improvement program and the long range plan. There's something that both the people and the County Commissioners of Summit County want to have happen.”
Cramer says as the population increases in the Wasatch Back, future transit projects on SR 248 and SR 224 would ideally include wildlife fencing and bridges.