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Utah deer crossings 'successful' but not perfect

KANAB — After a round-trip migration by several thousand deer, a new set of elaborate wildlife crossings under a highway in southern Utah is being labeled a qualified success.

But the experiment has not been without problems — both animal and human in nature.

Last year, a partnership of government agencies built 12 miles of fencing and large wildlife underpasses to reduce vehicle collisions with deer on U.S. 89 east of Kanab in Kane County.

"I think the general perception is that it has been successful," said Kevin Kitchen, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation.

Vehicle collisions with deer have been reduced substantially since deer began migrating under the highway instead of across it, Kitchen said.

The system of fences and underpasses is one of several designs being tried across the country as states try to reduce the costs of such accidents — in dollars and deaths of deer and humans.

Surveillance images show that deer are sometimes skittish as they approach the underpasses, but most will eventually walk under the highway.

"The behavior of the animals is one of the things we really have to look at as we take a look at the design of these structures and fences and the different types of crossings," Kitchen said.

Since the deer crossings were completed last fall, some deer have managed to get around or under the fences and walked out onto the highway. Some deer deaths have resulted, according to Cameron McQuivey, wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Land Management.

"The fence has not been perfect," he said, "and it's not expected to be perfect."

McQuivey said deer behavior established over hundreds of years can't change overnight.

"Studies have shown that it takes roughly three years for the herd to adapt to these new fences," he said.

Experts believe several hundred deer — from a herd of several thousand — never mustered the courage to go through the underpasses, possibly because of noisy vehicle traffic overhead or because the underpass tunnels seem unnatural.

Video footage shot last fall by Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife shows a herd of about 50 deer that seemed to deliberately avoid one of the underpasses. A number of people who observed such behavior complained to government agencies during the fall migration.

"A lot of them think that the deer (were) trapped on the north side of the road without any water and no feed," McQuivey said. "That's not the case. There's plenty of habitat" with sufficient water and feed.

Another problem is the completion of the underpasses and last fall's migration also coincided with hunting season.

"A lot of hunters (were) taking advantage of that and actually setting up their camps and things around where the deer would funnel through," McQuivey said.

The migration spectacle through narrow corridors also drew sightseers, possibly spooking the deer.

"That may have prohibited some of the deer from crossing," Kitchen said. "But we had over 3,700 (deer) cross through one of the (underpasses), which was a fantastic number for us."

Now that winter is over, most of the deer have successfully crossed over to the north side of the highway again, mainly through the underpasses.

Once the novelty wears off, McQuivey said, he believes the deer will move quickly under the highway and the conflicts with humans will go away.