Brett Prettyman: Support Utah’s wildlife crossings program

Wildlife-vehicle collisions cost millions and many can be prevented.

(Utah Division of Wildlife Resources via The New York Times) An image provided by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources shows a moose crossing an overpass spanning Interstate 80 near Parleys Summit in Utah. Dedicated wildlife crossings are reducing highway collisions — and producing animal photos and videos.

A father and son were recently trapped inside their vehicle after colliding with a moose at 70 miles per hour on Interstate 84 near Echo Junction. Fortunately, they were safe, and the car can be replaced. The moose, however, was killed in the collision.

The loss of moose, other big game animals and countless other creatures happens on our highways, backroads and neighborhoods more often than most people realize.

In 2021, the Utah Department of Transportation documented nearly 5,000 deer killed in vehicle collisions. The costs of these collisions add up, especially when considering vehicle damages, medical expenses and lost hunting opportunities. Accounting for such factors, wildlife-vehicle collisions are estimated to cost Utah taxpayers nearly $100 million annually.

Many wildlife-vehicle collisions are preventable. UDOT and the Division of Wildlife Resources are already collaborating on plans to install wildlife-vehicle conflict mitigation components at Echo Junction using $1 million in seed funding allocated in the 2022 Utah Legislature.

Representatives of the Utah Wildlife Federation and Wildlands Network were thankful to speak up for wildlife, and the people who love the wild animals of our state, about the importance of crossings by speaking to the Utah Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus in 2022. It was clear our state representatives care about wildlife and protecting people from vehicle collisions.

This money will leverage federal funds from a new wildlife crossing safety program as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. While this was a great start, more funding is needed to support UDOT with staff and funding resources to address all priority wildlife-vehicle collision hotspots in Utah. Leadership in both chambers is supporting following up on last year’s investment with $20 million in wildlife crossing funding in 2023.

This legacy investment in wildlife crossings would help prevent future animal-vehicle conflicts on Utah roads. Wildlife crossings, such as overpasses and underpasses, have been shown to be effective at reducing wildlife-vehicle conflicts. Studies have found that these structures can reduce the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions by up to 90 percent.

Additionally, wildlife crossings serve as a connection between important seasonal habitats for animals like deer and elk that migrate between summer and winter ranges each year. Mule deer traditionally follow the same migration route every year and those pathways cross roads and highways putting animals and humans at risk.

Structures like overpasses and underpasses allow migrating wildlife to move into places where they can find food and water while simultaneously keeping these animals off our roadways and out of conflict with drivers.

We have the opportunity to build on our state’s history of addressing this issue. Utah made history in 1975 when it completed the first wildlife overpass in the United States on Interstate 15 near Beaver. Since then, more than 60 wildlife crossings have been constructed throughout the state, making consistent strides in reducing wildlife-vehicle conflicts.

But, as the stories highlighted above and so many more tell, we have more work to do. It’s time to honor this foundation and invest in building a legacy of wildlife crossings. Not only will this make our roads safe, but it will also preserve our state’s natural heritage for future generations.

The decision to invest in wildlife crossings makes sense for Utah’s citizens and our wildlife. Let’s support the Utah Legislature in moving forward with this momentous investment. A dollar spent today could save lives and countless dollars down the road.

Brett Prettyman

Brett Prettyman is chair of the Utah Wildlife Federation.