By Becky Kramer The Spokesman-Review
BONNERS FERRY, Idaho — Three sets of bleached rib cages lie in the grass at the edge of Highway 95.
Shards of chrome and plastic are scattered nearby, evidence that this 2-mile stretch of highway is dangerous for both deer and drivers. In the past five years, 75 percent of the reported accidents here were wildlife-vehicle collisions.
“This is the kill zone,” Brice Sloan said as he walked along the highway’s shoulder, pointing out game trails leading from a stand of trees and debris from past accidents. “For a lot of animals, vehicles are the primary predator.”
A wildlife detection system developed by Sloan’s company — Sloan Security Technologies of Boise — could make the road safer for both people and animals. It uses Doppler radar to spot animals approaching the roadway. The detection sets off flashing lights on a warning sign, alerting drivers to slow down.
Getting drivers to apply their brakes is the objective. Standard wildlife crossing signs on rural highways are routinely ignored, said Rob Ament, road ecologist for the Western Transportation Institute in Bozeman. People get conditioned to the signs and stop paying attention.
But wildlife detection systems, if they’re properly designed, can be highly effective. In other pilot projects in Colorado and Arizona, they’ve reduced collisions by up to 85 percent, Ament told The Spokesman-Review.
Drivers start to view the flashing lights as a “wildlife crosswalk,” triggering the defensive driving found in school zones, he said.
Nationally and locally, wildlife collisions are a costly problem. They kill about 200 people each year in the United States and cause more than $1 billion in property damage, according to the National Wildlife-Vehicle Collision Reduction Study.
Sloan is working with the Nature Conservancy, Idaho Transportation Department and the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative to test his system in Boundary County, which has one of the state’s highest animal-vehicle collision rates.
Early results look promising, said Don Davis, a senior planner for ITD.
From December to mid-March, the system was tested south of Naples, Idaho. Thermal imaging revealed frequent deer and moose crossings. No animals were struck by vehicles in the detection zone while it was operating, though a moose was hit south of the zone, Sloan said.
Now, the system is being deployed north of Bonners Ferry, on another stretch of highway with high crash statistics.
The system’s mobility is an advantage, Davis said. It can be used for seasonal migrations, and it’s typically less costly than building wildlife overpasses or underpasses, which can run $2 million apiece. A wildlife detection system can start as low as $15,000 and run into the millions, based on the situation’s complexity, Sloan said.
Boundary County is rich in wildlife, with herds of deer, elk and moose; black bears, wolves and grizzlies; and even a few endangered caribou. Fencing off miles of U.S. 95 to keep animals off the road isn’t realistic, but training drivers to watch for flashing lights in collision hot spots could be, Davis said.
“If there’s something to avoid hitting deer, elk and moose, I’m all for it,” said Martin Hoffman, a FedEx driver whose route is in Boundary County.
Since the beginning of the year, Hoffman has hit two deer and a moose, and he’s had a herd of elk bolt out in front of him. The collision with the moose tore off the mirror on the driver’s side of the van, shattered a window, took out the front headlight and busted the grille. The moose spun around and hit the vehicle’s rear, causing damage there, too. Hoffman was unhurt.
“My boss says I’m just destroying vehicles, but 90 percent of my deliveries are in a wildlife corridor,” he said.
This time of year, the deer blend into the tan stubble of the fields.
“It’s a real dangerous time at dusk,” Hoffman said. “You have to pay attention, and you’d better be slowing down to 40 or 45.”
Up to 400 carcasses removed each year
Wildlife collisions extract a heavy toll in Idaho’s northernmost county, which is home to about 10,000 residents and U.S. 95, an international trucking route to Canada.
Between Bonners Ferry and McArthur Lake, a winter range area for deer and elk in southern Boundary County, more than 320 wrecks were attributed to wildlife between 2000 and 2010, according to the Nature Conservancy’s analysis of ITD data. Two people were killed, 36 of the accidents resulted in injuries and damages were estimated at $4.9 million.
But the official numbers underestimate the problem because most accidents aren’t reported. ITD crews remove up to 400 carcasses from Boundary County roadways each year. Most are deer, with smaller numbers of elk and moose. Since 2011, two people have died in motorcycle-versus-deer accidents in the county.
Cooperative efforts to reduce collisions in Boundary County go back at least 15 years. The most recent work is being funded through a $100,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and local matches.
For environmental groups, reducing wildlife deaths on the road is an expansion of efforts to provide safe corridors for animals moving between the Selkirk and Cabinet mountain ranges.
“This benefits both people and nature,” said Robyn Miller, a program director for the Nature Conservancy. “It improves vehicle safety and we see some great conservation outcomes.”
Coyote-size or larger triggers the system
Kay Burdick lives north of Bonners Ferry, at the edge of where Sloan Security Technologies is conducting the latest wildlife detection test. She frequently finds dead deer in her yard. A few wrecked vehicles turn up in her auto body shop, Accurate Collision, which handles about 20 repairs from wildlife collisions each month.
But about 20 percent of the traffic past her house is commercial trucks. They don’t stop when they hit a deer, she said.
Burdick’s curious to see results from the testing. She wonders how effective the detection system will be at changing drivers’ behavior.
The newest test site is on a tricky stretch of highway, Sloan said. Deer cross U.S. 95 to access fields on the east and a plantation of fir trees to the west. He’s singled out a 200-yard zone where most of the crossing occurs. It’s on a curve, and a ditch conceals the deer as they approach the highway.
“Not even the tops of their heads are visible,” Sloan said. “Drivers can’t see the animals until they’re literally on the road.”
The radar he’s using was developed for military applications, such a detecting suspicious activity around the perimeter of a convoy, Sloan said. The system sends out several signals per second. Filters screen out vehicle traffic, alerting on slower moving objects or objects perpendicular to the roadway.
A person walking along the highway shoulder would set off the flashing lights. But a pedestrian’s presence is also a good reason for vehicles to slow down, Sloan said.
Animals must be coyote-size or larger to trigger the system. The lights start flashing as animals approach the roadway, giving drivers time to react. Flashing lights continue until the animal has left the perimeter of the highway.
That’s an advantage over earlier systems, Sloan said. A Canadian client used a system where the flashing lights shut off 30 seconds after the first detection. That was problematic for moose, which stuck around to lick salt off the roadway and graze on the shoulder.
Sloan said an effective system requires low numbers of false positives. Otherwise, drivers start to ignore the flashing lights.
Earlier this month, George Shutes thought he got a false positive. Shutes, an ITD maintenance foreman, drove through the detection zone in the early morning. Though the lights were flashing, he didn’t see any wildlife.
But a later look at the system’s thermal imaging was revealing: A herd of deer had crossed the highway shortly before he drove by.
Patty Perry, administrative director for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, said she’s received questions from skeptical community members. Part of driver education is letting people know that “we don’t expect you to see the animal, we expect you to slow down,” said Perry, who’s been involved in the project through the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative.
Sloan will prepare a report on the wildlife detection zone results later this spring. At this point, it’s still a pilot project, said the ITD’s Davis.
However, “the environmental and transportation community have been working hard at this issue for 15 years,” he said. “This seems to hold real promise.”
If the system reduces accidents in Boundary County, it could be adapted for use in other parts of Idaho and the West, Davis said.