The Sublette County Journal
Volume 5, Number 14 - 11/30/00
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
The number of deer getting hit on the county's roads this year could be the highest ever.
by Rob Shaul
Last Wednesday evening, the day before Thanksgiving, Kurt Cordingly was driving back to Pinedale after a day of snowmobiling up Horse Creek. He had just come over the small hill east of the Cora Y and was on the short stretch of road that precedes the Duck Creek curve when he noticed four vehicles parked on the north side of the highway. Three of the vehicles had broken headlights, and there were four dead deer lying in the road.
Suddenly, Kurt's son, who was driving the rig ahead of him, slammed on the breaks to avoid a deer. Kurt swerved to avoid his son's vehicle, when a deer jumped in front of his own truck.
"Just then, two deer ran out from between the people standing with their cars on the side of the road and ran into me," says Mr. Cordingly. "One hit the driver side door and the other hit my snowmobile trailer. Killed 'em both.
"It gets better. It's a crew cab Ford. So after the one hits the front door, he rolls back and hits the second door. Now I have two smashed doors."
Within a span of just a few minutes, and a hundred feet of Sublette County highway, there were six dead deer on the road and four damaged vehicles. Kurt works in the Jonah Field, and spends lots of time driving Sublette County's highways to and from work. He's convinced this is the worse year yet for deer succumbing to road kill. Monday night on the way back home from work, he counted seven dead deer on the 30 miles of highway between the Jonah Field turnoff and the Pinedale city limits. "I have never in my life seen as many dead deer on the road," he says.
Mr. Cordingly is not alone. Others feel that 2000 is the worse year for deer-vehicle collisions in memory.
One is William Belveal of Belveal's Body Shop. On Monday morning, Mr. Belveal had seven deer-damaged vehicles sitting outside his shop in Pinedale waiting for repairs. "Normally, in the winter here, this is 60% of our work," says Mr. Belveal. Now it's 90%.
The Belveals also operate a wrecker service and William acknowledges that the increase in vehicle-deer collisions is good for business, but there's a point. "It's ridiculous. It really is," says Mr. Belveal.
This year's roadkill in Sublette County is definitely above normal says the Wyoming Highway Department's Dave Racich of Pinedale. In a year and a half period between November of 1997 and May of 1999, the Highway Department picked up 213 roadkills, all but just a handful of which were deer.
Just since January of this year, Mr. Racich estimates the Highway Department has moved upwards of 120 animals from Sublette County's roadsides. Not only are more deer being hit, but more moose and antelope are becoming roadkill statistics says Mr. Racich.
The Highway Department used to transport Sublette County's roadkill to the dump for disposal, but that policy changed a few months ago. It was costing the Highway Department $5-$10 per load to dispose of the dead animals at the county landfill, explains Dave, plus the time and labor involved to transport them to the dump. At several hundred animals a year, this added up, and the Department changed its policy to save money.
Now the Highway Department drags roadkill away from the road and hides it as best as possible from public view. Scavengers do the disposing.
Gary Shriver of the Highway Department adds that the deer aren't only being hit by vehicles, "They're splattered!" he says, because vehicles are hitting them at such high speeds.
"Between Big Piney and Daniel is absolutely brutal," for roadkill this year, says Sublette County Sheriff Hank Ruland, and the stretch between the Daniel Junction and Pinedale isn't much better. Mr. Ruland who agrees that roadkill numbers seem to be up this year, says that earlier this week he saw a nice buck deer laying dead on the side of the road west of the Cora Y.
The deer-vehicle collisions haven't been good for the deer, but Mr. Ruland has only heard of one person being injured this year, and that was the result of a near miss. Earlier this fall, one of Hank's own deputies swerved to miss a moose and hit a guardrail instead, injuring his knee. He may miss 10 weeks of work because of the accident.
"I'm seeing a lot of deer killed on the highway," says Big Piney Game Warden Brad Hovinga. "It seems like it is higher than normal for this early," he says. "Maybe not for January or February, but for November, I'd say we're seeing more killed."
Mr. Hovinga estimates that vehicles on Highway 189 between LaBarge and the Daniel Junction, combined with the Piney Cutoff (Highway 351), are killing 10-15 deer every week.
Further, Brad is averaging one injured deer call every other day. This is when he's called to put down a deer that has been injured, but not killed, in a collision with a vehicle. Last Sunday alone, he received three injured deer calls.
The most obvious reason Sublette County's highways are prime roadkill avenues is because the country is smack dab in the middle of several major Mule deer migration routes. Tens of thousands of deer summer each year in the Wind River Mountains north and west of Pinedale, in the Hoback Basin and in the Wyoming Range, all in Sublette County. Each fall, according to Game & Fish biologist Doug McWhirter, these deer migrate to their winter ranges.
Doug says that thousands of deer move through the Cora Y area on their way to winter range on the Mesa. Just north of Daniel, several thousand more deer cross the highway on their way from Merna to winter range on Cora Butte. Thousands more deer migrate each fall from the Wyoming Range, across the Ryegrass and the highway between Daniel and Big Piney to their winter range on the Mesa. Another four to six thousand deer cross Skyline Drive at the southern shore of Fremont Lake on their way to winter range.
This migration occurs every year, however. So why the increase in road kills this year?
William Belveal strongly believes the natural gas drilling on the Mesa is to blame. "I really firmly believe that the wintering habitat for the deer is destroyed," he says. "They're not wintering up there any more."
Hank Ruland thinks the roadkill increase has something to do with the higher deer population this year.
Dave Racich attributes the increase to the dry summer we had. "I think the vegetation out on the desert dried out sooner, this year." Dave notes that for whatever reason, the grass in the highway right-of-way stays a little greener, a little longer. Plus, it is fenced off from livestock grazing. Both characteristics have the effect of drawing deer and other big game to feed on the grass along the highways, where several unfortunately meet up with passing vehicles.
Piney Warden Brad Hovinga also believes last summer's drought is partly to blame for the increase in roadkill. There's been little or no growth on the shrubs the deer depend on for feed during the winter. "What's available is just what they left behind last year," says Mr. Hovinga. "They have to search for food for the rest."
Brad has already seen two formal damage claims submitted by ranchers in the area who have had deer feeding in their haystacks. This doesn't bode well for the deer population this winter. "If we have a normal winter," predicts Mr. Hovinga, "we're going to some dead deer this year. If we have a tough winter, we're going to have a lot of dead deer."
One person I spoke to didn't think this year's roadkill was anything out of the ordinary. Dyess Auto Body owner Corey Dyess put together 5-6 estimates for animal-damaged vehicles last week, and had already done three more when I spoke to him late Monday morning. However, he said this wasn't out of the ordinary for this time of year. Corey notes that the slick roads in the county compound the roadkill problem.
For his part, Kurt Cordingly is stuck trying to convince his insurance carrier that the deer ran into him. "Not too many people believe you that the deer ran into your vehicle," says Kurt. He knows this first hand, because one of the guys who works for him at Jonah Gas Gathering claimed a deer ran into the driver's side door of the company truck he was driving. Kurt had his doubts, but set them aside and had the door repaired. Two days later the same employee drove into the shop with the same door dented. Again he claimed the deer had run into him. "I didn't believe him," said Kurt. He does now. <
Photo credits: Rob Shaul
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