Caution: Wildlife Crossing by Nicole Roskos, Ph.D.

Caution: Wildlife Crossing

By Nicole Roskos, Ph.D.

While walking my dog one morning this past August, I came upon a young deer lying on the side of the road.  She was alive, but had been seriously injured by a gunshot wound to her face.  I stood there flooded with feelings of sadness, anger, and dismay.  My neighbor walked up with his dogs to inform me that the gunshot had been delivered by a policeman who had attempted to put her out of her misery after she had been hit by a car.  Rather than alleviate her suffering, however, the inept but well-meaning policeman had only exacerbated her pain.  This is just one personal account that reflects a larger, dreadful narrative that has been occurring on our roads since the construction of the first highway.

More animals are killed by cars in the United States each year than by any other method.  According to one organization, every day an estimated one million animals are killed by cars on US highways.  Actual numbers are higher, however, since most wildlife fatalities are left unrecorded.  For instance, the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation does not keep records of roadkill for any animal, with the exception of black bears. Matt Merchant has tallied 19 bears killed by vehicles in 2003 just in one region (Region 3) out of nine, and 16 in Region 3 in 2004.  Kristine Flones of the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center estimates that millions of squirrels and possums are killed on NY State’s roadways each year. Turtle, deer, and bird mortalities also are common problems in New York. Crows, ravens, gulls, owls, and hawks fly into passing cars as they chase prey or are crushed under wheels as they eat other “roadkill.”  During the spring, even more animals are killed when birds and turtles cross roadways in an effort to gather materials for their nests and food for their young. 

Jack Rabbit
All Photos in this article by Will Duncan Tuscan, AZ

In states where records of deer-vehicle crashes are kept, fatalities are alarmingly high.  In Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa, 125,801 deer were killed in 2003 alone.  This number reflects only those crashes reported, leading some experts to estimate that the number of deer killed on roads is actually double or triple the reported figure.   David Havlick from the Society for Conservation Biology states a more jarring statistic: every eight minutes, a car hits a deer in Michigan.

Other animals also are victims of America’s roadways: 100 black bears were killed in North Carolina in 2002; 1,291 snakes, 1,333 frogs, 374 turtles, 265 birds, 72 mammals, 29 alligators, and 1 lizard were killed in a single year along a 2-mile stretch of Florida’s highway 441.  Even in areas where animals are ostensibly protected, cars take their victims.  This year in Yellowstone National Park, six bears were killed, including “a grizzly sow and three black bear cubs.” 

Most Americans view the loss of individual animals as an “incidental” by-product of driving, rarely considering the effect each individual death has on familial bonds and wider wildlife communities. In certain regions, automobiles threaten the very existence of local populations and entire species.  For example, two of the bears hit this year in Yellowstone were female grizzlies.  Their deaths caused Yellowstone to declare that the grizzly population had reached its “mortality limit” and was teetering on the brink of extinction within the Park.  In Florida, roadways are putting an untenable stress on already endangered panther and Key deer populations. In East Texas, snake populations are highly depressed due to road mortality and Timber rattlesnake populations have disappeared entirely from areas with dense road coverage.

Car-animal death is also a major factor in turtle decline nationwide, according to three independent studies.  James P. Gibbs, a conservation biologist says, “Some of the species have just disappeared.  Obviously, one of the greatest obstacles for turtles is this web of roadways.” Gibbs studied turtle populations in central New York State and found a 95% male turtle population near busy roads, suggesting a large number of female turtles are killed in these areas when they cross roadways in search of nesting sites.  Low numbers of females mean fewer offspring, a problem exacerbated by the fact that some species of turtles don’t hit sexual maturity until 12 to 15 years of age.

Although the statistics are grim, individuals and organizations are making efforts to halt the roadside massacre.  Gibbs, for example, suggests building a low barrier on the sides of roads to prevent turtle crossings.  These barriers can also direct turtles to safer locations or more productive nesting habitats.  Other suggestions include the construction of overpasses and tunnels.  This latter option has become popular internationally. The Netherlands leads the world in efforts to integrate roadways and ecological habitats.  Canada and Europe also have begun to construct wildlife passages under and over roadways. 

While the US lags behind other nations in the construction of wildlife crossings, progress can be found here as well.  Florida leads the US effort, building underpasses to protect endangered black bears, panthers, reptiles and amphibians from motorists.  Florida also has proposed building 13 crocodile underpasses in the Keys.  Scientist Daniel Smith of the University of Florida has collaborated with the Florida Department of Transportation, identifying 15,000 hot spots where underpasses could be productively matched with road projects.  Hot spots are locations of peak roadkill  “where wildlife corridors such as riparian zones or strips of forest intersect with roads.”

How do the animals know to go to the constructed passageways?  In Florida’s Wekiva State Park, animals are blocked from the highway by a fence on both sides of the road and funneled along the barrier to the safe tunnel.  Hidden cameras at the tunnel entrances show that bears use the underpass and remember it.  “When the fence first went up, the bears snuffled along its edge looking for a gap,” says Havlick.  “Now, they tend to make a beeline for the underpass.”  Havlick hopes that the underpass will reverse the decline of Florida’s Black Bear population, which has dropped to 1,500 today.  Underpasses already appear to be having an effect on Florida’s panther population.  On the Big Cypress National Preserve, where a remarkable 24 wildlife underpasses have been built in key areas along Interstate 75, panthers are no longer found dead along the roadway. 

Like a great many environmental issues, the sheer scope of the problem can feel overwhelming.  Considering that there are over 4 million miles of public roads in North America the potential for one person to make a difference seems miniscule. Yet, the potential for positive impact is also great.  In general, there are two ways to approach this issue:  as an individual driver and as a collective activist for animal friendly roads: 

Flones believes that 90% of animal road deaths can be avoided by attentive and slow driving.  Consider some suggestions on animal friendly driving:

1)      Drive slowly.  This allows you time to respond to a crossing animal.


All Photos in this article by Will Duncan Tuscan, AZ

2)      Respond with caution to wildlife crossing signs.  These usually are put up in areas that have had high wildlife activity.

3)      Be particularly careful during dawn and dusk when many animals are out.

4)      Avoid driving at night when visibility is low and wildlife activity is high. 

5)      If driving at night, look for the reflection of eyes from your lights along the sides of the roads. When you see an animal, slow down and dip your headlights to give animals more range to see.  Bright lights can temporarily blind or paralyze them.

6)      Don’t litter. The smell of any food--from apple cores, to candy wrappers, to soda bottles, to fast food wrappers--attracts animals to roadsides.

7)      If you encounter a turtle crossing the road, pick it up by the back of the shell and move it to the side of the road in the direction that it was heading.  BE CAREFUL!  Never pick up a snapping turtle (identified by its rough shell and pointed tail) since it can seriously injure you. [Editor’s note: I’ve picked up many snappers from the rear part of the shell.  They can’t reach that far back.  Hold them securely with two hands and be prepared for strong pushing from their back feet.  It can be done, but you have to exercise caution, of course!]

Collective efforts on a local level involve building passways, barriers, etc. These efforts take funds as well as local support.  Get involved!  Conservation measures to allow for safe wildlife passage can easily become part routine road maintenance.  What you can do on a collective level: 

1)      Participate in your local government.  Go to county commission, metropolitan planning, or zoning meetings.  Inform your representatives about the tremendous loss of wildlife and habitat caused by roadways.  Encourage them to modify existing roads to direct wildlife to culverts or bridges.  Also, ask for legislation to reduce speed limits. 

2)      Write to the state department of transportation.  Tell them about the impact of roads on wildlife.  Ask about any efforts being done to curtail the loss of wildlife on roadways.  Encourage them to renovate roadway infrastructure to allow for wildlife crossings.  Also, tell them to expand the railroad system to reduce dependence on automobiles and eliminate congestion on roads.

 Note: This article was heavily foot-noted.  For all footnotes and color photos, go to

Nicole Roskos, Ph.D., is an ecological activist and philosopher.  She is teaching adjunct in the philosophy department at Marist College, Poughkeepsie, NY  This story was written for Wildlife Watch.

All photos are by Will Duncan, Tucsan, AZ

Connie Young, posted the following information:

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention data, October and November are the worst months for car versus animal crashes. And deer-car crashes injure far more drivers than any other kind of vehicle-animal collision. Eighty-six percent of all injuries from such crashes involving vehicles and animals involve deer. About another 13 percent involve horses, cows, bulls, and moose.

AAA makes these suggestions among others

  • Buckle up. Your odds of walking away from a collision with a deer improve dramatically if you and all your passengers are wearing seat belts
  •  Slow down. Driving at or below the speed limit improves your chances of stopping safely if a deer runs in front of you
  • Use your high beams and watch for the reflection of deer's eyes and their silhouettes on the shoulders of roads
  • Take note of deer-crossing signs. They're not placed arbitrarily.
  • If you see one deer, slow down and keep your eyes focused for more. And remember the exact spot where you saw a deer cross the road.