Deer, Cars, Wildlife Corridors… and Coyotes

by James A. Bacon

Egads! Vehicle collisions with deer accounted for 61,000 traffic accidents, in Virginia in the year ending June 30, 2016, according to the Virginia Transportation Research Council. The hoofed critters contributed to one in six of all accident claims. And, judging by the number of deer carcass removals, the number of accidents may be under-reported. There are more deer-related accidents than alcohol-related crashes. As a menace to Virginia motorists — roughly 10,000 injuries and 200 fatalities a year — deer are second only to distracted drivers.

I first read the astonishing deer-collision numbers in a Washington Post op-ed by Richmond journalist (and friend) Steve Nash. Nash is a careful reporter, but so amazed was I by the magnitude of the problem, I had to double-check the data. It’s accurate.

Lawmakers have tackled drunk drivers, and they’re working on distracted drivers. But I can’t think of any laws the General Assembly can enact that deer are likely to obey. There are almost as many deer living in rural Virginia (an estimated one million), and they are even less inclined than the human inhabitants of Second Amendment Sanctuary country to hew to legal diktats handed down from the legislature.

Given deer’s proclivity for civil disobedience, what are state authorities supposed to to? One possibility is to let hunters harvest more deer. Once upon a time, Virginia hunters bagged 200,000 to 250,000 of the animals yearly. The cull was down to 190,000 by 2018-19, and the long-term trends don’t look favorable. The number of licensed hunters has declined by roughly a third — by or 100,000 — since the early 1990s. (You’d never know it from the ruckus raised by gun-rights activists in Richmond this year, but the numbers are what they are.)

Nash has other ideas for addressing the problem. He points to an experiment along Interstate 64 in Charlottesville in which the installation of fencing to create safe corridors reduced deer-vehicle collisions by about 95% in two years. He also proposes going beyond highway fencing to creating wildlife corridors – a measure that would also protect endangered species like bears, fox squirrels and wood turtles. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has listed more than 500 vertebrate species at risk. As climate change warms Virginia temperatures, Nash writes, species will have to migrate north to survive, which won’t be easy when they encounter interstate highways, subdivisions, and other man-made obstacles.

Del. David L. Bulova, D-Fairfax, and Sen. David W. Marsden, D-Fairfax, have submitted bills that would require the Virginia Department of Transportation to establish a Wildlife Corridor Action Plan. The plan would list priority projects to protect wildlife corridors and improve road safety while also meeting the Commonwealth’s conservation goals, summarizes the Wildlands Network, which thinks the corridors are a dandy idea.

“We must act now to create corridors for wildlife movement and habitat before development makes it impossible to allow wildlife to allow for freedom of movement,” the Network quotes Marsden as saying. “This will increase safety of road crossings and lessen incidents of vehicle collisions with wildlife.”

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m all in favor of creating wildlife corridors. In fact, I’d go one step further and argue that we should create corridors of old-growth forest. That would require planning with a time horizon of a couple hundred years at least, and coordinating VDOT road projects with state acquisition of ecologically valuable land, the granting of private conservation easements, and the reform of local zoning codes and comprehensive plans to nudge rural populations through voluntary, market-based actions into more compact development patterns. If people lived in hamlets and villages, they would have a lot less impact on the environment and wildlife than they do when scattered about the countryside.

But I’m not clear how wildlife corridors will corral the deer population. Deer are anarchists. They don’t read maps. They don’t respect property lines. And if their numbers continue increasing, they will continue encroaching upon human habitat no matter how free they are to migrate from south to north. Barring a resurgence of the number of licensed hunters, or allowing hunters to re-sell venison for public consumption, the only long-term solution to the deer problem may be to bring back the coyotes.