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Fri, April 10

Elk-vehicle encounters on the rise

Above. three elk-damaged vehicles at a local tow yard. Below, a flashing warning sign on a project near Payson.

Above. three elk-damaged vehicles at a local tow yard. Below, a flashing warning sign on a project near Payson.

While wildlife-vehicle collisions aren't that uncommon in northern Arizona, where long, lonely stretches of road cut through miles of prime big game habitat, officials have noted a marked increase this year.

According to Tusayan Fire Chief Robbie Evans, of the more than 70 accidents so far this year between the park and Valle, the majority were animal-related.

"We've been doing an elk hit about every other night," he said. "There are more elk than there used to be. I try to do my duty of killing one each year but last year I didn't get drawn."

Problem areas

That stretch is one of several problem areas in the Flagstaff-Williams-Grand Canyon region. Earlier this month, the Arizona Department of Public Safety's Flagstaff office issued a warning to drivers in response to frequent collisions, especially on a stretch of I-17 in the Munds Park area south of Flagstaff where road crews have been cleaning up two carcasses a day.

But, according to DPS Information Officer Sgt. Rod Wigman, part of the problem is that many of the hits aren't occurring in those areas.

"This should also be a big concern to local residents since elk may be seen in locations where they have not been seen before," he noted in the warning issued on Wednesday, June 6.

According to park wildlife biologist RV Ward, the collision rate usually spikes in the spring and fall when the animals are on the move between seasonal ranges. This year, however, the drought is driving them to the roadsides where runoff makes for greener, more abundant eating.

"Frequently the pockets green up earlier in the spring and there's a much denser concentration of forage," he said.

This and other human enhancements have also made them a nuisance in the park.

"The problem is that they're kind of drawn to developed areas," he said. "There are fresh-watered lawns. Elk are primarily grazers and the habitat is really excellent for them. In the fall, hunting season pushes them into the park. They come in and hang all winter long. When spring comes, there's no reason to go out. There's no cattle grazing in the park so there's more forage."

He said that while there is no database of collisions for the past few years, older statistics as well as anecdotal evidence point to a stretch on Desert View Drive from Shoshone Turnoff to around Grandview where the frequency of elk hits spikes. It's also in that area that two radio-collared mountain lines were killed by vehicles.

Elk most common

While mule deer, mountain lions, javelina and coyotes and a host of smaller animals perish on the roadways, Evans said that his department sees more collisions with elk than any other type, just because of the nature of the beast. Grown females average about 650 pounds while bulls can go well over 700, 40 pounds of that made up of antlers. Wigman reported more bulls than cows are being hit.

"Deer, you hit them and they kind of run off and you can drive off," Evans said. "But if you hit an elk, your car doesn't run much further than that."

Fortunately, most vehicle occupants fare better. He said the most common consequences of a direct hit are bruising from the impact and some cuts from flying glass. Usually, air bags don't deploy because the bulk of the animal is above the bumper.

"A lot of the injuries come from hitting them sideways," he said. "They roll over the hood of the car and come into the windshield, go over the roof and knock out the back window. It's usually nothing real serious, just the shock factor."

They generally see the more serious injuries in drivers who swerve to avoid a collision and lose control instead.

"More people are hurt radically trying to avoid them than by actually hitting them," Wigman said.

That doesn't mean a direct hit can't cause injuries. Wigman said that especially later in the summer, antlers on the bulls pose an extra risk.

"Usually they just careen off the car, but every now and then, they'll come in the windshield - the front legs or with the bull elk, the antlers," he said. "People have been covered with innards and chewed grass. One time the horns had gone right through the passenger seat. If someone had been there, they would have been killed without a doubt. That's not real common but we do see it."

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