Remedy identified for deadly drive through deer range

WYOMING -- In the earliest hours of Thanksgiving 2018, Chris Colligan was on the homestretch of a long road trip, headed toward Jackson Hole to join his wife and then 1-year-old daughter for the holiday.

“Pushing it, driving too late,” he recalled.

Colligan considers himself an attentive, law-abiding driver, and he spent over a decade of his career advocating for wildlife crossings.

But in the moment, there was no opportunity to avert a collision. 

“It was the deer rut, and I had a spikehorn whitetail deer come running across the road,” Colligan said. “No chance to even think about touching the brakes or anything.” 

The young ungulate slammed into Colligan’s Jeep Cherokee, taking out his radiator near the west border of Wind River Indian Reservation. The Michigan-to-Wyoming road trip — and the buck’s life — came to an unplanned 1 a.m. stop outside of Dubois.

Colligan’s wildlife strike three years ago was one of 6,000 or so recorded statewide annually, and it took place in a particularly probable spot. 

An average of 150 wildlife-vehicle collisions are known to occur every year along a 49-mile stretch of Highway 26 that climbs from the high desert to the mountains of Togwotee Pass. That estimate, a combination of carcasses picked up by Wyoming Department of Transportation maintenance crews and phoned-in reports of wildlife strikes, makes the federal highway cutting through the Upper Wind River basin one of Wyoming’s highest-priority runs of road for addressing the problem. 

Now, after decades of carnage, a big fix is in the works. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and WYDOT have hatched a plan to cobble together millions of dollars to fund an overpass, high exclusionary fencing and a network of underpasses intended to curb the collisions. 

Retired wilderness outfitter Tory Taylor, whose small ranch abuts Highway 26 about 8 miles east of Dubois, welcomes the project, even if it requires major construction in his front yard.

“It may not be a perfect plan, and it’ll have to be tweaked and fine-tuned here and there,” Taylor said. “But we just need to do something to get the situation under control here.”

Taylor lives with his wife, Meredith, in an area he dubbed “ground zero” for deer strikes. A dozen animals, he guesses, are killed just outside of his property every year. 

“It’s a bad situation,” Taylor said, “and it’s getting worse.”

WYDOT and Game and Fish data confirm the observation. The Taylor ranch, squeezed between the highway and Wind River, sits near the single deadliest mile marker for mule deer, where nearly 100 carcasses were hauled away between 2010 and 2019, according to a 70-page mitigation strategy the state agencies commissioned.

The stretch of highway bisects the heart of mule deer winter range for the Dubois Herd, Julia Kintsch, a consultant and the report’s author, told attendees during a Dec. 16 virtual public meeting. The deer bounce from the river to nearby irrigated fields, crossing the highway as part of their daily routine, she said. 

The plan’s most intensive work is proposed for a 6.5-mile stretch of highway between the National Museum of Military Vehicles and the Longhorn Ranch. Four existing bridges and culverts would be retrofitted to encourage passage under the highway used by roughly 1,800 vehicles a day. Another three new underpasses would be dug out. The lone overpass would span the two-lane highway at milepost 59.5.

The cost for the work pencils out at an estimated $6.5 to $7 million in 2020 dollars. But it’s an investment that the agencies have calculated would pay off. A deer-vehicle collision runs up a societal tab of $8,000 to $10,000, factoring in damage to vehicles and insurance costs, law enforcement responses, cleaning up the road and the value of a deer.

“It’ll pay for itself in about 25 years,” Game and Fish Regional Wildlife Coordinator Daryl Lutz told meeting attendees. “And the longevity of those structures is estimated to be about 75 years.” 

Wildlife managers and researchers with the Wyoming Migration Initiative, The Nature Conservancy and Grand Teton National Park have studied how deer move through the area. Between 2016 and ‘19, they fitted 63 mule deer from the 6,000-head Dubois Herd with GPS tracking collars.

The precise data about mule deer movements reaffirmed longstanding suspicions, pinpointed crossing locations and helped explain the seasonality of collisions. The scientists discovered deer occupy habitat near the highway most often during the spring (March to early June) and fall (October through December) migrations. There were major lulls in use during the midsummer and again in the depths of winter. 

Although humans on the go are killing triple digits of Dubois Herd deer each year, roadkill is not believed to be driving down the population, Lutz said. Just one of the collared deer that the state has been monitoring died in a vehicle collision. The herd was last assessed at 5,696 animals, nearly 30-percent below Game and Fish’s 8,000-deer objective.

A potentially more significant stressor on the population looms. Chronic wasting disease, an always-deadly neurological condition, first showed up in the hunt unit encompassing the planned Highway 26 project area five years ago. But just one area to the east, in a zone that overlaps the Wind River Indian Reservation, the transmissible disease has proliferated, with CWD positivity rates as high as 78 percent, Lutz said. 

“The CWD rate in that herd unit — areas 157 and 171 — it’s the highest that’s been recorded, maybe anywhere in the world in wildlife,” he said.

Highway 26 is tied for second on Wyoming’s wildlife crossing infrastructure priority list. Four years ago, WYDOT, Game and Fish and a host of nongovernmental organizations held a roadways summit devoted to wildlife-vehicle collisions. A team of state officials subsequently identified and prioritized 43 stretches of highway deemed most problematic. 

At the top of that list right now is a portion of the freeway spanning southern Wyoming where elk and other ungulates are being completely locked out of portions of their native range. 

“We really view Interstate 80 as being that barrier, because of the traffic being so significant,” Game and Fish Deputy Director Angi Bruce said.

The No. 1 priority, she told WyoFile, is a planned I-80 overpass at Halleck Ridge, where elk and mule deer historically came down from Elk Mountain and the Medicine Bow National Forest to reach lower-snow winter ranges farther north. A rough cost estimate, pre-design and engineering, is $40 million.

“That one would be pretty monumental,” Bruce said. “We would need an overpass for six lanes of interstate, so pretty expansive.” 

Highway 26 near Dubois and a 24-mile run of Highway 189 near Kemmerer are the next priorities for funding. The latter stretch crosses habitat used by the Wyoming Range Mule Deer Herd and Sublette Pronghorn Herd. Its fixes will include underpasses and fencing and is “very similar” to what’s in the works in the Wind River basin, Bruce said.

Increased public awareness, more precise animal movement data and new funding  — including the potential to draw from a $1 trillion federal infrastructure package — have promise to help make big-dollar wildlife crossing projects happen in Wyoming. 

“Our department has been working on this issue for 60 years, so it’s really exciting to see the momentum and interest and support,” Bruce said. 

WYDOT hasn’t yet requested federal funding for the Highway 26 project, but the inaction is purposeful. Once the state agency starts the formal design process using federal dollars, it begins a 10-year clock to start construction — a potentially burdensome constraint. If the design is funded through other sources that don’t have a sunset date, it’s more ideal, WYDOT District 5 Construction Engineer Randy Merritt explained to virtual meeting attendees.

To that end, some private donations have trickled in that are being filtered through Game and Fish’s nonprofit fundraising foundation, the WYldlife Fund. A $50,000 contribution was pledged by the Muley Fanatics Foundation, funding that emanated from a CARES Act grant that the Fremont County Board of Commissioners passed along. Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow, a new initiative comprised of donations from Jackson Hole businesses, contributed another $13,400 dollars. 

Those are “great first steps,” said Colligan, the man who decommissioned his Jeep hitting a Highway 26 deer on Thanksgiving a few years back. In his former job at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, he pushed and planned for wildlife crossing projects, such as under-construction changes to Highway 89 directly south of Jackson. 

“It just takes time,” Colligan said. “Everybody wants wildlife crossings yesterday, but at least projects I’ve worked on, it takes about 10 years.”

Colligan was in a bind after the collision that frigid early holiday morning in 2018. 

“I couldn’t run the vehicle, once all the coolant leaked out,” he said.

Eventually, he got a ride from a state trooper to Dubois and convinced a tow-truck driver to go to work on the holiday. By 6 a.m., he was waiting for his wife, Susan. Toddler daughter in tow, she braved the drive over Togwotee Pass to scoop up her stranded husband. 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.