Friday, February 8, 2013

ITD forms wildlife committee

Group to consider mitigation for vehicle-versus-wildlife accidents


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

The Idaho Transportation Department will be teaming with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Blaine County and other interested government or community groups to come up with ways to mitigate the high number of wildlife-versus-vehicle accidents in the Wood River Valley.
    Formation of the new “wildlife committee” was discussed and announced at a Thursday morning meeting of the Blaine County Regional Transportation Committee, which meets monthly to discuss various transportation issues.
    “We can take the lead if no one else does,” said ITD Project Development Engineer Walter Burnside, whose agency is in charge of state highway projects. “We’re really looking at a group effort, involvement with other agencies and community interest groups. We agree that it’s an issue, we agree that it needs to be addressed.”
    Several Fish and Game staff members attending the meeting agreed that the agency would be involved. Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary volunteered and said she will work with Burnside to come up with committee composition.
    While motorists have been colliding with wildlife, mainly deer and elk, for many years along state Highway 75, local and state authorities have stated that the number of collisions seems to be increasing.
    Fish and Game Conservation Officer Lee Garwood said elk herds in particular are becoming more urbanized, with some herds taking up permanent residence in the valley and staying there throughout the year. He said one permanent group is just north of Hailey, one of the most active spots for collisions.
    Fish and Game Staff Biologist Mike McDonald confirmed that the number of collisions seems to be increasing.
    “It’s not going to go away—in fact, it seems to be getting a little worse,” McDonald said.
    Burnside said the committee will consider a number of options, such as building “fence and funnel” systems to guide animals to bridges or overpasses for crossing, installing electronic sensors that warn motorists when large animals are near the road, improving lighting, reducing nighttime speed limits and increasing motorist “education” on the issue.

A cow elk jumps a fence in the mid Wood River Valley. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game reported Thursday that elk are tending to become more urbanized in the valley, meaning that they stay in comfortable locations throughout the year.
Express photo by Roland Lane

    However, Burnside acknowledged that ITD has no funding for wildlife accident mitigation in the valley.
    Mid-valley resident Kris Stoffer, who lives in the area north of Hailey with one of the highest numbers of collisions, said the committee should also address the issue of fences and berms along the highway, which she said have a tendency to make elk linger on the highway as they contemplate where to go next.
    “I really appreciate this coming to the fore and becoming a priority,” Stoffer said.
    Garwood noted that the county ordinance requiring low lighting also compounds the issue.
    “It makes it more difficult to see and to know what to do about it,” he said.
    Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said the county’s “dark sky ordinance … just says that lights will be downcast. It doesn’t say there can’t be lights.”
    Schoen, who attended the meeting even though he doesn’t serve on the Regional Transportation Committee, said there is significant public interest in the issue and the situation can be improved if the public works together.
    For example, he cited a speed-limit change two years ago south of Bellevue at Timmerman Junction as an example of change caused by public outcry. He said that change has been highly effective in improving safety at the intersection of state Highway 75 and U.S. Highway 20.
    “I think the engineering changes that were made were excellent, and we owe ITD our thanks for that,” Schoen said.
    Burnside noted that slower speeds are an option for reducing wildlife collisions.
    “It’s a possibility—we could certainly kick it around,” he said. “The whole idea with a warning system is to get people to slow down.”


Terry Smith: tsmith@mtexpress.com




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