Highway underpasses aid deer migration
by Wyoming Game & Fish
June 4, 2008
Six highway underpasses are being installed on U.S. Highway 30 in Nugget Canyon to assist migrating mule deer cross the highway safely and protect motorists from colliding with game animals.
Installation of the highway underpasses is a joint project between the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and will augment the two underpasses already in use by big game.
Dave Neilson, transportation technician with WYDOT, is the on-site supervisor for the wildlife underpass project and says their goal is to install all six underpasses in time for this fall's deer migration.
"I spent the past three winters monitoring this 12-mile stretch of Highway 30, locating deer tracks and determining where the deer were crossing the highway," said Neilson. "That way, we know for sure where the best location is to install the underpasses. Proper location and installation will mean protection for migrating deer and keep motorists from colliding with the deer."
Nugget Canyon sits in the middle of one of Wyoming's largest big game winter ranges. U.S. Highway 30 is also one of Wyoming's busiest highways, with heavy tractor-trailer use. During spring and fall migration there is a steady stream of deer and elk crossing the rail line and the highway in Nugget Canyon between Kemmerer and Cokeville. This migration provides an opportunity to view wildlife, but it also creates hazards for motorists and deer alike.
Neilson was a Kemmerer High School graduate in 1986 when the Wyoming legislature passed the Nugget Canyon Wildlife Migration Project Act to protect migrating wildlife.
"This underpass construction project means more to me than just another project, " Neilson said. "I think it's neat that, when I graduated in 1986, I worked for the construction company that built the original highway fences to protect the deer. Now, I am supervising another phase of the project, installing the six additional highway underpasses and more fences. I grew up right next to this mule deer herd and everyone wants to see these deer saved. It feels good to be a part of such a meaningful project."
Neilson said only state funds and no federal funds are being used to construct the highway underpasses and the project is a high priority with WYDOT.
"WYDOT crews use a crane to swing the underpasses into place under the highway. Then wing-shaped fences are installed to funnel the deer into the underpass boxes. The placement of the boxes must be highly visual to the deer. There can't be any bumps at the ends of the underpasses or the deer won't use them. After the underpasses are installed we will erect seven miles of eight-foot high fencing along the highway through the canyon."
The problem of wildlife and vehicle collisions has existed as long as the highway has been there. An average of more than 200 mule deer continue to die each year in collisions with motorists. Most of the game mortalities are the result of motorists, including truck drivers, not adjusting their speeds or paying attention to the flashing warning lights and signs.
Bill Rudd, Game and Fish assistant wildlife division chief, says since 1986, experiments using a variety of warning devices and safety measures have been tried in the canyon to reduce game mortalities.
"We have tried many ways to solve the migration problems in the canyon," Rudd said. "Graduate students installed an infrared flashing light sensing system, called FLASH, to warn motorists when deer are crossing the highway with some success.
Volunteer labor and moneys were contributed by the Overthrust Wildlife Association to pay for the flashing lights, highway signs and deer-proof fencing. Interpretive signs were installed to educate people about the migrating animals and to get motorists to slow down, and WYDOT constructed highway pullouts in Nugget Canyon for motorists to safely pull over and view wildlife. At one point, motorists could tune into an AM radio message and hear about the mule deer herd in Nugget Canyon."
"We were losing large numbers of deer in the Wyoming Range mule deer herd and it seemed like the underpasses would help save this important mule deer herd. So, in 2001, WYDOT installed two highway underpasses and by Thanksgiving, hundreds of mule deer were crossing under the highway."
Rudd says the Nugget Canyon Wildlife Migration Project is ongoing and involves many volunteers, students from the University of Wyoming, state agencies and groups like the Mule Deer Foundation.
"I have always said that I wanted to see this project completed in my career and it will, thanks to the efforts of so many people. This is truly a great success story for Wyoming, protecting both motorists and deer,” Rudd said. “The underpasses will protect a major migration corridor for one of our most popular deer herds, the Wyoming Range herd. The credit for this project goes to the WYDOT, under the leadership of Del McOmie and John Eddins, and to the WYDOT and Game and Fish field folks who made this project happen."