Oh deer. Kentucky to create statewide plan to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions.

More ‘ambitious’ projects such as wildlife crossings could follow

By: - December 12, 2023 5:50 am

More than 3,000 vehicle collisions with deer were reported across Kentucky last year. (Photo by Joe Lacefield, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources)

Kentucky transportation and wildlife management officials plan to use a federal grant to fund a first-ever statewide plan identifying roadways prone to vehicle collisions with wildlife and possible ways to reduce such crashes. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program, funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, awarded the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet $1.2 million to create the statewide wildlife-vehicle collisions plan and also launch a pilot “corridor study” to examine wildlife collisions along route U.S. 60 and Interstate 64 between Louisville and Frankfort.

James Ballinger, the state highway engineer, in an interview with the Lantern said the cabinet chose to study the two parallel roadways between Louisville and Frankfort because of the mix of urban, suburban and rural areas along the two routes and the high number of reported car crashes with deer. 

He said there are about 45 reports of car crashes with deer along Interstate 64 between Louisville and Frankfort a year, a number that he believes is underreported. 

“It’s just enough representative sample, we felt like, of the conditions that you see all across the state and especially focused on the whitetail deer collisions that we’re seeing,” Ballinger said. “You can definitely make a more informed decision though if you’ve got better data to work from.” 

Such collisions sometimes go reported because drivers don’t report them, the injured animal wanders away from the crash site or law enforcement and other agencies don’t have the resources to collect wildlife collision data. Past federal research has shown 1 million to 2 million million collisions between cars and large animals happen across the country every year, causing hundreds of deaths, tens of thousands of injuries and billions of dollars worth of property damage.

Across Kentucky, there were more than 3,000 reported car crashes with deer last year. 

In partnership with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Ballinger said, the cabinet plans to collect existing data sources to identify roadways throughout the state where collisions with wildlife are a significant issue. 

He said the statewide plan could lead to efforts to build infrastructure to reduce collisions, such as through the building of installing wildlife crossings over or under roadways. Colorado is receiving $22 million through the same federal grant program to build what will be “one of the largest overpass structures” in North America to prevent vehicle collisions with elk and deer. 

Environmental conservation organizations, which supported state officials’ efforts to apply for the grant funding, also see the work as beneficial to connecting habitats of various species that are cut off by various roadways. 

Greg Abernathy, the executive director of the nonprofit Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, in an email said he hopes the state’s plan on what roadways to prioritize in reducing collisions will align with investments already being made by conservation organizations in the state. 

“Intact connected landscapes are essential to sustaining ecological functions. Overpass and underpass infrastructure help to maintain landscape connectivity as well as traffic safety,” Abernathy said. “​​We would like to see the plan consider science and (data) on priority wildlife corridors and landscape connectivity in Kentucky and within the broader (regional) landscape.”

One biologist who worked on the grant application said strategies to reduce vehicle collisions with wildlife also can go beyond building physical wildlife crossings for animals to use. 

Cassondra Cruikshank, an environmental biologist specialist with the Transportation Cabinet, said other strategies to reduce collisions could be as simple as installing more signage, which could flash at night, to keep motorists aware about passing wildlife. Fencing can also be installed to prevent wildlife from crossing in problematic sections of roads, such as blind turns, or funnel wildlife to cross a roadway in a safer area. 

“Habitat fragmentation is a really big issue when it comes to roads and any kind of wildlife, but especially deer,” Cruikshank said. 

She said busy roads, especially if there are “bumper to bumper” traffic jams, can create an “actual physical barrier” at times that animals can’t cross. 

Cruikshank said other states, particularly those in the west, have more “ambitious” plans to build wildlife crossings and have studied the issue of wildlife collisions longer than Kentucky has. But she hopes the grant funding will ultimately begin work in Kentucky on understanding where something like a wildlife crossing, extra signage and more could be helpful.

“Nobody wants to hit a deer. And if we can facilitate people being safer on the road, facilitate wildlife being safer, and nobody has to really give up much of anything — drivers don’t have to go slower — you know, it’s kind of a win-win for everybody,” she said.

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Liam Niemeyer
Liam Niemeyer

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.