All the components needed to create the perfect car crash have been put in place – more accurately, totally horrific.
It was a dark winter’s night, and two elk were crossing NM 68 south of Taos, probably to search for food. That’s when Garrett VeneKlasen spotted animals while driving his old Lexus.
VenKlasen had enough time to break out of the mother elk’s line, but his car wiped out nearly 250 pounds of calf. The collision killed the young deer and caused “significant” damage to the vehicle.
The truck driver behind Finn Claassen didn’t have time to avoid the dead elk and rushed over her body, causing another collision.
Neither driver was hurt, but Finn Claassen, trembling, remembered it as a “very scary” accident that made his heart race.
“If I had gotten past another 12 inches, that elk would have come over my hood and into my windshield and probably killed me,” said Finn Claassen, Northern Conservation Manager for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
Such potentially fatal situations pose an increasing problem as wildlife migrate farther to find food, water or a mate or escape from a once-comfortable habitat ravaged by wildfires. Officials say vehicle accidents involving animals — encounters that can lead to destruction, death and thousands of dollars in damage — are prompting a renewed effort to create safe passages for both humans and animals.
Lawmakers and wildlife and public safety advocates are putting a lot of faith — and looking to spend a lot of money — in implementing the state’s Wildlife Corridors Act, which was passed and signed into law in 2019 but still needs hundreds of millions of dollars. to bear fruit.
The numbers are alarming: According to a June 2022 action plan compiled by the state Department of Transportation and the Department of Game and Fish, between 2002 and 2018, 15,486 accidents were reported on New Mexico roads involving six large species, including deer, elk and lions. bear. Deer accounted for more than 11,000 of those accidents.
Sometimes, the victims aren’t just animals. In late August, a Transportation Department official told lawmakers on the Interim Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvement Commission that there have been at least three human deaths, most recently in 2020, from such accidents in New Mexico.
US Department of Transportation statistics say more than 200 people died in animal-related vehicle collisions in the country in 2020, with the vast majority occurring between June and September.
Financial price for such accidents: $8 million, including the cost of property damage repairs, according to the federal report.
The mere presence of signs along the highway warning motorists of deer crossings and other animals may not be enough to stem the tide of shocks, advocates say.
The Wildlife Corridors Act requires state agencies to analyze various data points—including incidents involving wildlife—to prioritize areas where wildlife corridors, including overpasses, underpasses, and fencing, must be built to protect both humans and animals.
A recent state report says the top five land vehicle crash hotspots are Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe, as well as the town of Cuba in Sandoval County and the southern New Mexico communities of Bent, Ruidoso and Silver City.
It also prioritizes six wildlife corridors recommended for construction projects, including Chama, an area south of Raton and on roads in the Sandia and Jimmy mountain ranges.
Meeting the trail needs in the Big Five Avalanche Zones will be costly—about $165 million, according to current estimates.
Brian Bird, director of the Southwest Program for Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit that works to protect native flora and fauna in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, acknowledged that these projects “are not cheap.”
Although the legislature has already appropriated $2 million to fund the state agency’s efforts to develop an action plan and prepare a report, that money wouldn’t go much further than that, he said.
But Byrd added that the bipartisan infrastructure package approved by Congress includes $350 million to build wildlife road crossings, and New Mexico can apply for similar grant money to move forward with trail projects.
Senator Mimi Stewart, Democrat of Albuquerque, who co-sponsored the Wildlife Corridors Act, said last week that she hopes to secure $50 million in non-recurring funding in the 2023 legislative session to begin work on some priority projects and apply for matching federal approval. . funds.
“We need to get our grant writers together and figure out how we can access that money,” Stewart said. “It’s important that we try to protect our animal diversity and try to do smarter things; try adding some of these bridges and underpasses and fencing.”
Will these efforts bear fruit? The state of Nevada reported success with a flyover and bridge animal program that first began in 2010. Nova Simpson, a biological supervisor in the Nevada Department of Transportation’s Department of Transportation, said the state has registered about 8,000 mule deer annually using those trails to cross roads safely.
“That’s 8,000 animals that are not on the road and in front of motorists,” she said.
She said the game fence, which can range from just two feet in height for desert turtles to eight feet for deer, elk and bighorn sheep, is grazing those animals toward safer lanes.
“Most animals can adapt to lower or upper bridges,” she said.
Another benefit of animal corridors, she said, is their ability to reduce the mortality rate of endangered species or those whose populations are already at risk, such as the desert turtle.
Other states, especially in the west, have established similar wildlife corridors, including Arizona and Colorado. In California, millions are being raised to build a crossing for 101 USA on the west side of Los Angeles County, which will allow mountain lions to easily cross eight traffic lanes, expanding their habitat.
New Mexico has already begun constructing two lower wildlife corridors near Cuba and Raton.
Wildlife advocates say these expansions are necessary to preserve these populations and give animals a chance to adapt to development. Climate change, drought and wildfires are the driving factors behind migration patterns.
“We are seeing more and more of these accidents because of [animal] “Habitats have been compromised and evolution is moving into areas they would normally use,” Finklassen said. “It’s a huge public safety issue, but you can’t give value to wildlife. It’s important economically, important from the consumer level – we eat elk. It’s an important food source for families.”
VaneKlassen believes New Mexico is going in the right direction with the Wildlife Trails Act, but said it needs to move faster and invest more money in infrastructure to make such safe corridors viable.
“Fifty million is a good start,” he said. But we need to set aside $100 million for this tomorrow. There’s capital spending money, federal money, all different kinds of money to apply to this. I want this to be on my radar [congressional] Senators and Representatives as well as all state legislators. We need to step up this matter.
“The clock is ticking and the spirits are hanging in the balance – obviously human spirits but also wildlife of great value.”