Deer in the Headlights

By Beacon Staff

The number of motor vehicle collisions with deer has dropped in Montana in the last year but the state still ranks near the top in the nation for the likelihood of deer-related crashes.

Montana is currently sixth in the U.S. in per-capita rankings for deer collisions, according to a recent study released by State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.

Deer-related accidents between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011 were down 11 percent from the previous year across the state, although roughly 1,600 claims were filed, according to State Farm, the largest provider of auto insurance in the country.

State Farm released its annual report last week leading up to the most dangerous time of year for wildlife-related collisions. Deer migration and mating season leads to three times as many collisions during November than any other month, according to State Farm’s data. October and December are the second and third most likely months for accidents.

Montana has the highest likelihood for accidents involving wildlife of any state in the West. Wyoming, second in the West, is ranked 10th overall.

For the fifth year in a row, the state with the highest likelihood nationwide is West Virginia, followed by Iowa and South Dakota. Hawaii is the least likely in the U.S. and then Arizona.

The number of accidents involving wildlife on the stretch of U.S. Highway 93 between Missoula and Kalispell dropped slightly last year, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.

There were 99 wildlife-related accidents reported between the DeSmet Interchange outside of Missoula and Kalispell from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011. In the previous two years there were 118 and 109, respectively, on the highway.

There were 65 reported accidents in 2001 and the number has grown every year except for last year and from 2005 to 2006.

On MT Highway 83 from Seeley Lake to the junction with MT Highway 35, there were 40 collisions last year.

Montana has tried mitigating wildlife collisions in recent years, especially along Highway 93. A collaboration between the state’s transportation department, the Federal Highway Administration and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes led to an extensive wildlife-sensitive highway design on a 56-mile stretch of road from Evaro to Polson.

Called “The People’s Way,” the highway section was reconstructed starting in 2004 and completed in 2009, costing roughly $150 million. The reconstruction included developing fences paralleling the highway and the creation of wildlife overpass and underpass crossings.

Currently there are more than 40 wildlife crossing structures and roughly nine miles of fencing.

Overhead crossings, like the one that spans the highway south of Arlee, were constructed as a means for safe passage for wildlife. Post-construction research is still being conducted to study their effectiveness and the cost and benefit of the mitigation efforts, according to the transportation department.

The number of deer-related collisions nationwide dropped for the third consecutive year, according to State Farm. The percentage decline over the last year is nearly three times as large as the previous two years combined.

Claims data estimates that roughly 1.09 million collisions occurred across the country in the last year. The average property damage from these accidents was just over $3,000, State Farm said.

Tips from State Farm for avoiding wildlife-related collisions:

• Be aware of posted deer crossing signs. These are placed in active deer crossing areas.

• Remember that deer are most active between 6-9 p.m.

• Use high-beam headlamps as much as possible at night to illuminate the areas from which deer will enter roadways.

• Keep in mind that deer generally travel in herds – if you see one, there is a strong possibility others are nearby.

• Do not rely on car-mounted deer whistles.

• If a deer collision seems inevitable, attempting to swerve out of the way could cause you to lose control of your vehicle or place you in the path of an oncoming vehicle.

Top 15 states with highest likelihood for motor vehicle and deer collisions in 2010-11

1. West Virginia
2. Iowa
3. South Dakota
4. Pennsylvania
5. Michigan
6. Montana
7. Wisconsin
8. Minnesota
9. North Dakota
10. Wyoming
11. Nebraska
12. Virginia
13. Maryland
14. Arkansas
15. Ohio

Study: State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.