Wildlife Collisions

- Duane Radford 

A couple of events occurred last year that prompted me to write an article about wildlife collisions. The first incident involved a majestic bull moose that had been hit by a pickup truck. It happened on Highway 16, in broad daylight, on October 5 of last year, just west of Elk Island National Park. The front end of the vehicle was cratered. The poor creature lay crippled in the ditch when I happened upon the accident. Authorities had been contacted to euthanize the moose. The second incident involved an old friend of mine who collided with a moose on a dark, stormy night on his way home to his farm near Lac Bellevue on December 11. His SUV was a write-off. These are not isolated accidents involving wildlife collisions in Alberta; they happen all the time.

The latest collision data that the Alberta Motor Association (AMA) has from Alberta Transportation is from 2020. “Five Albertans were killed in collisions involving a moose between July 19 and August 3, 2020. That’s the average number of fatal crashes with wildlife for an entire year!” Note that these accidents with moose took place in the summer, generally a time when risks are lower. According to the AMA, November is the peak month for wildlife-vehicle collisions; about eighty per cent involve deer, which are “especially active this time of the year as mating season gets underway.” Wildlife-vehicle collisions are expensive; the average claim is around $8,000 and the average annual cost to Albertans is around $280 million. The AMA recommends that motorists take the following defensive driving measures to protect themselves.

Slow down.  “The faster you’re going, the greater the distance you’ll need to stop.” Speed limit restrictions should be your starting point, but exercise extra caution near wildlife crossings, many of which are signed. “The severity of a collision spikes exponentially as speed increases, making the potential for death or serious injury more significant[1] [2] [3] .”

Be vigilant. Actively scan for animals on the highway and along the ditches, regardless of where you are driving. Because of urban sprawl encroaching into wildlife habitats, wild animals can be found just about anywhere in Alberta.

Pay attention to posted signs. Yellow diamond-shaped signs indicate areas where animals are known to cross, so extra caution should be exercised in such areas. Do not, however, be complacent; during the rutting season, animal behaviour does not follow any particular patterns. General timelines for the wildlife rut in Alberta are: bison in August; pronghorn antelope, elk, and moose in late September to early October; and bighorn sheep, mule deer, and white-tailed deer in November.

Drive during daylight. Generally speaking, wildlife activity peaks during early morning and evening, which are prime feeding and movement times. If you drive during the daylight hours, you’ll reduce your risk of colliding with wildlife. It can be hard to spot a large animal at night because of their dark coloration — even when they’re right in front of you.

Be light-smart. It’s obviously important to be able to see what’s on the highway and ditches ahead of you. Keep your windshield and headlights clean and use your high beams when it’s safe to do so to better illuminate ditches. Vehicles with fog lamps have an advantage in such situations.

Watch for groups. Animals often travel in groups, such as a mother deer and her fawn, or a cow moose and her calf. Some animals travel in herds, particularly elk and bighorn sheep. If you see one animal, expect to see another. You may wish to sound your horn (in short bursts) to warn them of your approach.

React strategically. Should an animal come across your path without warning, brake hard but stay in your lane, otherwise you may collide with another vehicle or hit the ditch. If you cannot stop for a large animal such as an elk or moose, steer toward its hindquarters; if you head in the same direction the animal is travelling, you’ll increase your chance of a collision.

As an example of the scope of this issue, the Nature Conservancy of Canada conducted a study along Highway 3 in the Crowsnest Pass in 2020 to define the need for safe highway passage for wildlife by installing 37 cameras along the highway. According to their findings, “More than 145,000 deer and elk, 612 black and grizzly bears, 568 cougars and 72 wolves were observed by the survey cameras.” These are staggering figures. There were nearly 800 traffic accidents involving animals on Highway 3 in Crowsnest Pass between 2017 and 2021, according to data from Alberta Transportation and Economic Corridors. Obviously, the risk of collisions is extremely high. Safe passages would benefit both wildlife and minimize collisions. Further, anyone who travels along Highway 16 in Jasper National Park would likely relate to these statistics where wildlife activity along the highway is a common sight and extra caution is necessary. Be vigilant!

Duane Radford has had some close calls over the years — there was that white-tailed buck on Whitemud Drive and a mule deer on Highway 1 near Brooks in broad daylight. Duane reminds us that you can’t be too careful no matter where and when.