All the necessary ingredients were in place to create the perfect vehicular accident – more precisely, perfectly gruesome.
It was a dark winter night, and two moose were crossing NM 68 south of Taos, probably looking for food. That’s when Garrett VeneKlasen spotted the animals while driving his aging Lexus.
VeneKlasen had just enough time to pull away from the line of the mother elk, but his vehicle swept away a calf that weighed around 250 pounds. The collision killed the smaller elk and caused “significant” damage to the vehicle.
The driver of a truck traveling behind VeneKlasen didn’t have enough time to avoid the dead moose and ran over his body, almost creating another crash.
None of the pilots were injured, but a shaken VeneKlasen recalled it as a “pretty scary” incident that made his heart pound.
“If I had been 12 inches taller, that momentum would have gone over my hood and into my windshield and probably killed me,” said VeneKlasen, conservation director for the North Federation of the New Mexico wildlife.
Such life-threatening situations are increasingly problematic as wildlife migrate further afield to find food, water or a mate or to escape once-comfortable habitat devastated by wildfire. Officials say vehicular accidents involving animals — encounters that can result in destruction, death and thousands of dollars in damage — are prompting renewed efforts to create safe corridors for man and beast.
Lawmakers, public safety and wildlife advocates are placing a lot of faith — and looking to invest a lot of money — in implementing the state’s wildlife corridors law, which was passed and signed into law in 2019, but still needs hundreds of millions of dollars. to bear fruit.
The numbers are sobering: According to a June 2022 action plan compiled by the state Department of Transportation and the Department of Game and Fisheries, between 2002 and 2018, 15,486 incidents were reported on New York’s highways. -Mexico involving six major species, including deer, elk and black. bear. Deer accounted for more than 11,000 of these incidents.
Sometimes the victims are not just the animals. In late August, a state Department of Transportation official told lawmakers on the Interim Committee on Transportation, Public Works, and Capital Improvements that there had been at least three human fatalities, the most recent in 2020, at the aftermath of such accidents in New Mexico.
Statistics from the US Department of Transportation indicate that more than 200 people died in animal-related vehicle collisions in the country in 2020, with the vast majority occurring between June and September.
The financial price of such accidents: $8 million, including the cost of repairing property damage, according to the federal report.
Advocates say simple signs along the highway warning motorists of deer crossings and the presence of other animals may not be enough to stem the tide of crashes.
The Wildlife Corridors Act requires state agencies to analyze different data points – including wildlife accidents – to prioritize areas where wildlife crossings, including overpasses, underpasses and fences of game, must be constructed to protect both humans and animals.
The recent state report says the top five wildlife vehicle accident hotspots are Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe, as well as the town of Cuba in Sandoval County and the southern New Mexico communities of Bent. , Ruidoso and Silver City.
It also prioritizes six wildlife corridors recommended for construction projects, including in the Chama region, an area south of Raton and in the roads of the Sandia and Jemez mountain ranges.
Meeting corridor needs in these five major accident areas will cost approximately $165 million, according to current estimates.
These projects “don’t come cheap,” acknowledged Bryan Bird, southwestern program director for Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit that works to protect native plants and animals in Arizona, New Mexico, and New Mexico. in Texas.
Although the Legislature has already committed $2 million to fund efforts by state agencies to create an action plan and report, that money won’t go much further, he said.
But Bird added that a bipartisan infrastructure package passed by Congress includes $350 million to build wildlife crossings, and New Mexico can apply for matching grant funds to move forward with it. corridor projects.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who co-sponsored the Wildlife Corridors Act, said last week she hoped to secure $50 million in one-time funding in the 2023 legislative session to begin work on some of the projects. priorities and apply for corresponding federal funding. funds.
“We need to get our grant writers together and find out how we can access these funds,” Stewart said. “It is important that we try to protect our animal diversity and try to do things smarter; try adding some of these overpasses, underpasses and fences.
Will such efforts pay off? Nevada reported the success of an animal underpass and overpass program first launched in 2010. Nova Simpson, biological supervisor for the Nevada Department of Transportation’s Environmental Division, said the state has recorded about 8,000 mule deer each year using these corridors to cross safely.
“That’s 8,000 animals that aren’t on the road and in front of motorists,” she said.
She said game fences, which can range in height from a few feet for desert tortoises to eight feet for deer, elk and bighorn sheep, work to herd these animals to safer pathways.
“Most animals can adapt to underpasses or overpasses,” she said.
She said another benefit of animal corridors is their ability to reduce the mortality rate of endangered species or those whose populations are already under threat, such as the desert tortoise.
Other states, mostly in the West, have created similar wildlife corridors, including Arizona and Colorado. In California, millions are being raised to build an overpass for US 101 on the west side of Los Angeles County that will allow cougars to easily cross eight lanes of traffic, expanding their habitat.
New Mexico has already begun creating two wildlife underpasses near Cuba and Raton.
These expansions are necessary, wildlife advocates say, to sustain these populations and give the animals a chance to adapt to the development. Climate change, drought and wildfires are also driving migration patterns.
“We are seeing more and more of these accidents because their [animal] habitats have been compromised and development is moving to areas they normally use,” VeneKlassen said. “It’s a huge public safety issue, but you can’t put a value on wildlife. It’s economically important, important from a consumption point of view — we eat elk. It is an important source of food for families.
VaneKlassen thinks New Mexico is moving in the right direction with the wildlife corridors law, but said it needs to act faster and invest more money in infrastructure to make these safe crossings viable.
“Fifty million is a good start,” he said. “But we have to commit $100 million to that tomorrow. There’s capital expenditure money, federal money, all kinds of different money to apply to that. I want it on the radar of [congressional] senators, representatives as well as all state legislators. We need to speed this up.
“The clock is ticking and lives are at stake – obviously human lives but also very valuable wildlife.”
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