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Spring migrations spur safety warnings from Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Drivers should watch for animals at dawn and dusk
Jordan Foster holds and comforts a young deer that was hit on north Main Avenue in Durango. The deer was later put down because of its injuries. Drivers are reminded to be extra cautious as wildlife begin their spring migrations. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

As wildlife begin their spring migrations, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials are reminding drivers to watch for animals along roads.

Deer, elk and other species are beginning their annual migrations back to the mountains after wintering at lower elevations. Roads pose a significant risk to wildlife and to drivers, prompting CPW to urge caution in the coming months.

“Spring migrations can result in motorists being surprised when animals are seen in places they haven’t been spotted regularly this winter,” said CPW Area Wildlife Manager Rachel Sralla in a news release. “Watch closely for animals with young ones in tow who may lag a few seconds behind the adults. Our vigilance will help them return safely to higher elevations where they will fawn or calve and then raise their young over the summer months.”

In 2021, drivers in Colorado Department of Transportation’s Region 5, which covers south central and Southwest Colorado, hit and killed more than 2,100 animals, according to CDOT data. While the total dipped from nearly 2,500 in 2020, it still marks by far the most wildlife accidents in the state.

Every year, CDOT documents an uptick in wildlife collisions as animals migrate back and forth between their winter and summer habitat, CDOT data shows. Accidents peak in October and November, but the agency also sees an uptick in April and May.

“Animals will look for easier routes to get in between those summering and wintering areas, and a lot of times that can be along roadways,” said John Livingston, spokesman for CPW’s southwest region.

Animal-vehicle collisions are a concern for CPW along major roads such as U.S. Highway 160 and U.S. Highway 550, but also along city streets and other roads that cross migration corridors. The southwest corner of Colorado has some of the highest rates of residential development in deer winter range in the state, according to a 2020 CPW report about big-game migrations.

“Deer move across our minor arterial roads all the time, and the best way to protect wildlife on the roads is to keep to the speed limit and keep our eyes up,” Sralla said.

An elk takes its chances while attempting to cross U.S. Highway 550. In 2021, drivers in Colorado Department of Transportation’s Region 5, which covers south central and Southwest Colorado, hit and killed more than 2,100 animals, by far the most wildlife accidents in the state. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The 2020 report by CPW found that roads and vehicles pose a significant risk to wildlife, noting that many major roads bisect migration corridors and fragment wildlife habitat.

But the authors also highlighted the risk that wildlife migrations pose to drivers. Drivers are involved in almost 4,000 animal-vehicle collisions each year in Colorado. Those accidents cost an estimated $66.3 million in medical expenses annually, according to the Colorado Wildlife and Transportation Alliance.

In 2018, CDOT and CPW founded the Colorado Wildlife and Transportation Alliance along with federal, tribal and other partners to tackle the dangers of road transportation. The coalition’s goal is to improve road safety for wildlife and drivers.

In recent years, the two agencies have worked together to identify hot spots where animals move back and forth across roads and construct wildlife crossings in Southwest Colorado to reduce the risk of collisions.

CDOT is nearing completion of two wildlife crossings along Highway 160 west of Pagosa Springs having completed the underpass and restarting spring work on the overpass.

“Even with just the underpass completed there right now, they’re already seeing big game and small animals using that underpass,” Livingston said. “... We’re excited to see that work resuming and we’ll be excited to see the animals utilizing that (overpass).”

The transportation agency has also incorporated underpasses and numerous wildlife safety measures into its realignment of Highway 550 south of Durango.

Wildlife are most active at dawn and dusk and those two times are the greatest danger for drivers and wildlife, Livingston said.

“So much of what we see happens at dawn and dusk,” he said. “A lot of times we like to get messaging out to folks whenever there’s a time change because those are where we do notice some jumps (in animal-vehicle collisions). The changing the clocks for daylight saving time also corresponds with when these animals are in their seasonal migration.”

The wildlife underpass that goes under U.S. Highway 160 just west of the intersection with Colorado Highway 151 between Bayfield and Pagosa Springs. Drivers should stay alert, particularly at dawn and dusk, and watch for shining eyes – a telltale sign that wildlife is in the area. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

During dusk and dawn, drivers should stay particularly alert and watch for shining eyes. They should also reduce their speed, watch for wildlife warning signs and scan the shoulders of the road, according to CPW’s website.

Livingston said drivers should put away their phones and avoid distracted driving and prepare for multiple animals crossing the road at one time. Though deer will have their fawns later in the year, yearlings can still be cautious and trail their parents.

“Even some of those yearlings from last summer are still trying to figure it out,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll be crossing a couple seconds behind mom and dad or you’ll see them being a little bit more cautious on the shoulders after the rest of the group has already crossed the road.

“Elk and deer can blend into the landscape pretty well,” he said. “You just want to be watching for movements or looking for those eyes. It’s not just about watching on the road but what’s on the side of the roads as well.”

CPW officials hope that safety measures like the wildlife underpasses will reduce accidents during spring migrations as they are incorporated into more road projects, but ultimately drivers will determine road safety for wildlife and themselves.

“Hopefully, we continue to see (decreasing) trends as we get more of these crossings at highway spots that we’ve identified, but a lot of it just depends on drivers themselves,” Livingston said.


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