“Seven elk killed on weekend along Canmore highway,” read the CBC news item on April 29, 2019. A shocking headline, but one that’s all too common. “Alberta is home to Canada’s most diverse population of large mammals,” says Tim Johnson, Alberta program associate at the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. “But we also have 31,000 kilometres of highway that are only getting busier.”
And wildlife collisions are only getting costlier. Alberta Transportation says that animals are involved in half of all reported crashes on rural highways. In 2015, the Ministry estimated that, province-wide, such accidents cost upwards of $280 million per year. Likewise, AMA Insurance claims for wildlife collisions averaged $8,000 in 2018, an increase from previous years.
So how do we make Alberta roads safer for drivers and animals? “It’s all about being more alert when you’re behind the wheel,” says Ryan Lemont, manager of driver education at AMA.
A few routine practices go a long way in that regard. Keep your windshield clear and your head- and taillights clean for better visibility at dawn, dusk and night—the times when many large animals are most active. Your high beams can help too, when it’s safe to use them; they’ll reflect in the eyes of animals and make them easier to see.
Also, make a habit of scanning both sides of the road. “Drivers typically scout the right-hand shoulder,” Lemont says. “But animals don’t discriminate; they’re just as likely to be found grazing on a grassy median in the centre of the highway.”
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And, of course, slow down. Speed limits—not to mention wildlife warning signs—are posted for a reason. “The faster you’re driving, the greater the distance you need to stop,” Lemont adds. “And the greater the chance of injury or death if you do hit something.” This is especially true in winter.
Slippery roads and fewer daylight hours make November through March the highest-risk period for wildlife-vehicle collisions (though animals can and do make their way on to our roads at any time of year).
Broader measures can also mitigate collisions. The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is currently advocating for a wildlife overpass and fencing on Highway 1 in the Bow Valley Gap, just east of Lac des Arcs. This stretch of road sees more than 50 wildlife collisions annually. To date, Alberta Transportation has engaged a design firm to determine the possible form and feasibility of that overpass.
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Such interventions have already been successful in the Rockies. Johnson notes that since the late 1980s, Banff National Park has built 38 wildlife underpasses and six overpasses, along with 82 kilometres of fencing and enhanced signage. “It’s helped reduce collisions by about 80 percent, and up to 96 percent for deer and elk, which were most commonly hit,” he says.
But when the rubber hits the road, safe driving is an individual responsibility. “Animals are just like any other hazard that you need to be aware of,” Lemont says. Driving defensively and without distraction—and, if possible, eschewing driving during low-visibility times—will give you the best chance to avoid a too-close encounter with Alberta’s iconic mammals.