ISLAND PARK — East Idaho has plenty of roads and highways where vehicle versus wildlife collisions are common.
There’s the South Bannock Highway south of Pocatello, where large numbers of urban deer congregate. There’s various stretches along Interstate 15 that are known to be hazardous because of the presence of wild animals. There’s even the notorious Rocky Point area of U.S. 30 near Montpelier, which cuts through a major migratory route for deer.
But when it comes to wildlife collisions, it is quite possible that the most dangerous road of all is US 20 in Island Park.
Locally known as the “longest Main Street in America,” the road stretches for 33 miles past various campgrounds, forests, fishing lodges, cabins, motels and restaurants. While the road is heavily used by skiers and snowmobilers who are passing through during the winter months, the sprawling highway sees the most use during the summer, when Yellowstone National Park is open to the world.
While the nearby national park brings in millions of dollars annually to the small community of Island Park, it also brings in large numbers of migrating wildlife, such as deer, elk, moose and bears. The presence of these animals creates major hazards for everybody, including the local residents, the local wildlife and the Yellowstone visitors who are traveling through the region.
According to the Idaho Transportation Department, nearly one out of four accidents on US 20 are caused by collisions with wildlife, which is almost five times the national average.
For many of the local residents, hitting a large animal with a car is just an unfortunate part of life. Kim Trotter, the US program director for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), said she has hit a deer while driving on the road, and she knows many others who have had similar experiences.
Her best friend once had her car totaled by a jaywalking elk.
“The windshield was pushed in about 4 inches from her face,” Trotter said. “She was lucky to walk away unscathed.”
US 20 is also one of the few areas in the state where crashing into a grizzly bear is a real possibility. Last September, a grizzly from Yellowstone was struck and killed by a vehicle on the road.
“The animals can be quite dangerous, and it’s a huge cost to humans,” Trotter said. “On average, hitting a deer can cost $7,000 in damages and injuries, while a moose can cost $30,000 on average. But none of that can measure the cost of a human life.”
The reason US 20 can be so dangerous to motorists is its geographic location. The road cuts directly through the migratory routes for a variety of Yellowstone’s animals, particularly elk and moose.
“It’s a major migration area,” Trotter said. “Elk and moose will often cross Highway 20 twice during the year to get back and forth to their wintering grounds at the St. Anthony Dunes.”
Island Park even has a resident moose population that doesn’t migrate, which poses a lot of hazards to local residents. Because the moose never leave, they are constantly crossing busy roads.
These issues have attracted the attention of the Idaho Transportation Department, which is looking to find ways to improve the safety of the traveling public, as well as the safety of the traveling wildlife along US 20. A key focal point of ITD’s US 20 initiative is a study conducted between 2009 and 2014 that examined the migratory patterns of large ungulates such as elk and moose.
ITD also looked at grizzly bear movements, thanks to data from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.
Using all of this information, ITD is looking at the best places to install safe wildlife passages along the road where animals can cross the highway safely.
“We put 30 radio transmitters on elk and 30 radio transmitters on moose, and we’ve determined nine locations along Highway 20 that elk and moose frequently use or are most likely to use,” said Tim Cramer, senior environmental planner for ITD.
There are a number of options available to help protect both wildlife and motorists. These range from yellow wildlife warning signs to fences to over- and underpasses along the road that allow animals to safely cross without putting motorists in danger.
A report on ITD’s findings and conclusions on US 20 was completed on Thursday, and the results are expected to be shared with the Henry’s Fork Legacy Project later in July. The Henry’s Fork Legacy Project is a collaboration of local organizations that seeks to conserve the natural resources of the Upper Henry’s Fork in Fremont County.
While it may seem unusual that wild animals would actually adapt and use an over- or underpass along a busy road, Trotter said she has seen it happen, and with great success.
Y2Y is an organization devoted to protecting natural mountain habitat that exists between Yellowstone and the Yukon. One of the organization’s major accomplishments was a series of wildlife passages along the Trans-Canada Highway near Banff National Park in Alberta. During the course of the multi-million dollar project, a series of fences, overpasses and underpasses were built.
Once the animals adapted to the new structures, Canadian officials saw an approximate 90 percent drop in wildlife collisions along that portion of the Trans-Canada Highway.
“We’ve had 200,000 documented crossings,” Trotter said. “Now the animals use it so much we’ve seen them have breakfast on one side and then come back to the other side for lunch and dinner. We’ve even seen squirrels use it.”
Y2Y and the Henry’s Fork Legacy Project will host a screening of the film “Wild Ways: Corridors of Life,” on Saturday at the Boys House at Harriman State Park. The film discusses the issue of safe wildlife passage around the world.
The screening begins at 6 p.m. and is open to the public.