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Elk crossing: Spike in elk-vehicle collisions sparks safety conversation

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Elk dodge vehicles near Gallatin Gateway. PHOTO BY HOLLY PIPPEL

By Ryan Strother EBS CONTRIBUTOR

Elk carcasses have become an increasingly regular sight for commuters between Bozeman and Big Sky. During the first week of November, four elk were killed in one location in less than 24 hours. From mid-October to the end of November, drivers on U.S. Highway 191 killed 18 elk in the 70-mph zone between the mouth of the Gallatin Canyon and South Cottonwood Road.

Since then, the Montana Department of Transportation has placed two variable message signs along that stretch of highway after local activists pressured elected officials to address the ongoing issue. While that move has slowed the rate of elk-vehicle collisions, activists say it doesn’t represent a long-term solution to this public safety problem that can put drivers, elk and first responders in danger.

Daniel Haydon, sergeant for the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office in Big Sky and West Yellowstone, is one of six deputies based in Big Sky called to respond when a vehicle hits an elk on the highway.  First responders to the scene of the accident must first consider how to position their vehicles on a tricky stretch of road to avoid further accidents.

The aftermath of an elk-vehicle collision on Highway 191. PHOTO BY HOLLY PIPPEL

“That’s one of the more dangerous parts of our job. There are not great sight lines, and we can have bad road conditions that make it difficult for people to stop,” Haydon said.

The scene of an accident is a treacherous place for drivers and passengers involved in the accident, traffic moving through the area, as well as the first responders on the scene—usually the highway patrol or sheriff.

Once parked, first responders assess the safety of drivers and passengers involved in the crash, and a tow truck is called for damaged vehicles to clear the road and reduce hazards for other drivers. After human safety is accounted for, there’s animal suffering to consider. Any animals with non-survivable injuries still at the scene are shot by law enforcement to put an end the animal’s suffering.

“A lot of times it’s the sheriff’s office that arrives on scene first. We’ll take care of that so that we can try to do it quickly and humanely. But if Highway Patrol arrives first, or Fish, Wildlife and Parks, or a game warden arrives on scene, they’ll do the same thing,” Haydon said.

It’s an unfortunate reality of the job, but thanks to a 2013 law, harvesting roadkill in Montana is legal with a permit.

“Most animals killed by a collision end up getting harvested. At least the meat doesn’t fully go to waste in the same way it had to before we had that roadkill harvest law,” Haydon said.

A person with a salvage tag claims an elk killed after it was struck by a vehicle. PHOTO BY HOLLY PIPPEL

Though scavenging may be a silver lining, no one wants to see traffic accidents or wildlife fatalities continue along the Gallatin Canyon corridor. Photographer Holly Pippel has spent seven years watching the Gallatin Gateway elk from her viewfinder. In mid-October, Pippel observed elk collisions rapidly increasing and appealed to the Montana Department of Transportation for better signage.

Bozeman resident Avery Berg is an avid hunter and occasional scavenger of meat and hide from road killed animals. She says elk can be difficult to obtain because of the quick responses of other scavengers with the know-how to harvest an animal.

Scavenging, Berg says, “is all about honoring the animal after its life. It’s a remarkable way to reflect on modern transport and how devastating it can be. You may not be hunting it or tracking its movements … but you are still able to think of all the things that were required for this animal to thrive in this area.”

Efforts from Pippel with Gallatin County Commissioner Zach Brown expedited the MDT to bring variable-messaging signage to areas with the highest rates of collisions with elk. Since then, Pippel says she’s observed relatively fewer elk deaths in the area between Wilson Creek and Williams Road. Pippel credits the signs as well as fewer elk concentrating at the immediate mouth of the canyon.

Signage might be a start, but there’s a long way to go before bigger improvements are implemented, according to experts on all sides of the elk-vehicle collision issue. Conservation easements, a wildlife crossing overpass, and reduced speed limits have been proposed as potential improvements to human-wildlife interactions in the Gallatin Valley.

In the meantime? Elk advocates like Pippel say to drive carefully and pay attention, especially when animals are present by the roadway.

A portion of the elk herd between Gallatin Gateway and Gallatin Canyon. PHOTO BY HOLLY PIPPEL

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