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New legislation sets ‘Wildlife Crossing Zones’ to protect drivers and wildlife

It’s that time again — Colorado wildlife are on the move.

They are migrating to wintering habitats and that, unfortunately, leads to higher incidents of wildlife-vehicle collisions (WVCs). Each fall, a group of organizations come together for the “Wildlife on the Move” message to motorists statewide:? be aware, drive with caution and slow down, especially at night, when the majority of WVCs occur.

The organizations for the “Wildlife on the Move” campaign include the Colorado Department of Transportation, Colorado Division of Wildlife, Colorado State Patrol, Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Agency and the Center for Native Ecosystems.

“As Colorado has an abundance of deer and elk, as well as other wildlife, that live near our urban and rural areas, motorists need to be aware that they can cross our roads without warning at most any time of day or night,” said Colorado State Patrol Chief Colonel James Wolfinbarger. “Slow down and stay alert when you see a highway wildlife warning sign especially between dusk and dawn. If you see one deer or elk, expect others.?Remember to scan ahead ?on the sides of the road for signs of movement and to watch for the shining eyes of animals that reflect car headlights at night.? Most importantly, slow down and concentrate on retaining control of your vehicle.?It is important to maintain control before, during and after a collision with an animal should one occur.”

Wildlife-vehicle collisions happen year round, 24/7. However, there is always an increase during migration season, and particularly during the hours between dusk and dawn. These collisions are not only a matter of safety, but can be quite costly as well.

“The insurance industry pays out nearly $1.1 billion a year in claims for all wildlife-vehicle collisions nationwide — a big portion?of that is in November, when these types of collisions increase,” says Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.?“A single claim for a wildlife-vehicle collision is averaging $2,900.”

New safety legislation

This year, motorists will see more roadside reminders to slow down and watch for wildlife in specifically designated corridors. Recent legislation, sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Curry and Sen. Gail Schwartz (and several non-governmental organizations, listed below), calls for lowered nighttime speeds and doubled fines in designated “wildlife crossing zones.” (There are no fines for hitting an animal.)

“This program will make Colorado roads safer,” Schwartz said. “Collisions with wildlife cost Colorado drivers lives and dollars. Thanks to these limited wildlife migration corridors, we can alert drivers, adjust speeds at certain times, protect drivers and wildlife, and help avoid dangerous collisions.”?

Per the HB 1238, the Colorado Department of Transportation identified 100 miles of wildlife crossing zones where lowered nighttime speed enforcement was feasible. CDOT is currently setting signs within the zones and will collect data and report back on results of this pilot initiative in the spring of 2012. CDOT worked closely with representatives of the Colorado State Patrol and the Division of Wildlife, using several comprehensive data sources, to identify nearly 100 miles of state highway that will see lowered nighttime speed limits through designated wildlife corridors.

Nighttime speeds will be reduced to 55 mph only where current speeds are posted at 60 or 65 mph. Other sections of highway will be signed “Wildlife Corridor,” but the nighttime speed will remain the same — fines will still be doubled for speeding, however. Motorists will begin to see the signs on the designated corridors by the end of October, and possibly into November. (As reported in last week’s SUN, one of the crossing zones and corridors is on U.S. 160 in western Archuleta County.)

“Alerting drivers to the presence of wildlife is a critical step towards keeping roads safe for people and animals alike,” said Caitlin Balch-Burnett, Colorado Outreach Representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “Thanks to the hard work of all involved to make these wildlife crossing zones a reality, travelers are given a key tool in protecting themselves and our state’s wildlife.” ?