SPANISH FORK — Once reputed to be among the deadliest, if not the most dangerous, roadway in Utah, U.S. 6 has undergone a transformation that earned a national highway award for improvements that ultimately ended up saving lives — both human and animal.
The stretch of highway between Spanish Fork and Price has been widened, restriped, repaved and had a number of structural improvements put in over the years to curtail motorist fatalities, and at the same time decrease vehicle collisions with wildlife.
An Exemplary Ecosystem Initiative Award was given last month to the Wildlife Coordinating Committee, which was established in 2005 following a federal environmental study that said wildlife and vehicle collisions were a safety hazard that needed to be addressed in tandem with road improvements.
For Patty Cramer, who had moved to Utah a year earlier and was passionate about academic studies in transportation ecology, the timing was perfect for her research project.
Cramer, a Utah State University professor, ran headlong into her wildlife crossing study, talking to more than 400 people in the United States and Canada to find out what was working and what wasn't.
She's found that there are 800-plus wildlife crossings in the U.S. and thousands upon thousands of aquatic crossings for fish — a trend she says is increasing exponentially.
"Every decade it has definitely caught on," Cramer said.
Ironically, the renewed attention Utah has paid in the past five years to installation of wildlife crossings is a return to its past. In 1975, Utah became the first state in North America to put in a wildlife crossing when one was installed near Beaver along I-15, Cramer said.
"At the time, folks from Canada were so excited they came down to see and then went back and did it on steroids," she said. "It dropped off here."
Crossings can include such structures as slightly raised bridges along a stream's corridor, or specifically widening a culvert so it's an ideal size for deer to pass through. If it's too long, it has a repelling factor, Cramer said, especially among prey animals.
"They do not know if there is a mountain lion in there," she said. "Ninety percent of the success of a wildlife crossing is location — just like real estate. Location, location, location."
Wildlife fencing at least 8 feet high should be installed within a half mile in each direction of the crossing on both sides of the roadway, else the purpose is defeated, Cramer said. Escape ramps — mounds of dirt — are built up along side of the fence adjacent to the roadway.
"If the deer gets stuck between the fence and the road, the escape ramp allows it to jump to the wild side," Cramer said.
Dave Sakaguchi, a habitat biologist with the state Division of Wildlife Resources, said the need for such structures was clearly demonstrated in an analysis of U.S. 6 by federal officials when a major overhaul was being planned.
Numbers showed a gross underestimation of how many vehicle accidents happen due to wildlife. Initial estimates put 100 accidents due to wildlife in a 10-year-period, but Sakaguchi said roadkill records from UDOT contractors showed 300 to 500 carcasses being picked up per year.
"It was a big a problem," he said. "There are not only these direct collisions with animals. Sometimes when you are trying to avoid hitting an animal in the road, you go into oncoming traffic or roll the vehicle. It is a definite safety concern."
For too long, the tradition was for transportation officials to put in road infrastructure — such as culverts to pass a stream underneath a highway — without consideration for wildlife, Sakaguchi said.
"The crossings have been expensive dollar-wise, but that is hard to compare if a person is killed in an accident with an animal," he said.
The results at Utah's 25 wildlife crossings — particularly at those along U.S. 6 — have showed results beyond what committee members had even hoped for, said chairman Brandon Weston.
At milepost 204, where historically there had been a large number of deer and vehicle collisions, the average number of deer killed prior to the installation of a bridge crossing was 12 per year.
In 2010, after the crossing was put in, that number was reduced to two, Weston said.
"The things that we are doing are being effective," he said, with reductions of up to 95 percent in wildlife roadway kill in some locations.
At I-70 seven miles east of I-15, a wildlife structure there has dropped vehicle and wildlife collisions 50 percent of what it had been previously, Weston said. The success is such that the committee is now eying other locations in the state where, if road improvements are planned, crossings would make sense.
Cramer documents successful passages of animals — such as a doe and fawn using a crossing twice to get under a highway and back — via 35 remote cameras installed at crossings in Utah. She's hopeful that three years' worth of data will help shape transportation decisions in the future and decrease fatalities among people and animals.
Crossings, too, are unique as the populations they serve.
Utah has crossings in the south to accommodate tortoises. In Florida, where Cramer got her doctorate, she worked with transportation officials there to put in a 3-foot-high wall with a lip designed to help snakes or frogs navigate the roadways safely.
"Every state takes a piece of the puzzle and experiments with what is important to them," she said. "It's starting to become part of the standard operating procedure of doing transportation — to consider the natural world around you when are upgrading something."