Opinion: Utah lawmakers are making roads safer for drivers and wildlife
In 1975, Utah installed the first wildlife bridge in the nation on I-15 near the town of Beaver. Since then, we have built over 50 wildlife crossings across the state.
In the twilight hours of a February evening, Dr. Matthew Meek headed north to Garden City via Logan Canyon with his wife and four small children. Near the turnoff for Beaver Mountain, a deer darted out in front of their SUV, causing an unavoidable collision. Fortunately, none of the passengers was injured, and the deer scampered off, leaving the Meeks’ with a crushed hood and frightened children.
It’s an all too familiar situation that many of our friends and family members have experienced. You’re driving on Utah’s rural roads or highways, and a deer jumps out in front of your car. It happens in the blink of an eye, but the damages can be long-lasting.
The Utah Department of Transportation documented nearly 5,000 deer killed in vehicle collisions in 2021 alone. In Utah, 90% of the big game animals killed in wildlife/vehicle collisions are deer. These collisions result in damage, injuries and even fatalities to the people driving, and they significantly impact our state’s iconic wildlife. This is compounded by financial impacts, such as vehicle damage, medical expenses and lost hunting opportunities. Accounting for such factors, the estimated cost of collisions with mule deer in Utah reached close to $50 million in 2021.
Thankfully, our elected leaders in Utah have a long history of stepping up to the plate and working across party lines for solutions on this issue. In 1975, Utah installed the first wildlife bridge in the nation on I-15 near the town of Beaver. Since then, we have built over 50 wildlife crossings across the state.
In 2020, Gov. Spencer Cox signed HCR13, sponsored by Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, and Sen. David Hinkins, R-Ferron, urging continued state investment in wildlife connectivity, as well as urging local governments to adopt policies to protect and restore migration corridors and promote road safety. These policy investments set the stage for win-win solutions that are proving to save lives.
Following this year’s legislative session, Cox signed HB427 into law, sponsored by Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, and Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, which requires UDOT to report annually on wildlife mitigation priorities to the Utah Legislature. This annual report will help formulate and guide investments in reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions — like bridges and tunnels that allow wildlife to safely cross the road — in areas across our state.
Additionally, this year’s budget included a $1 million appropriation to address one of the most dangerous hotspots for wildlife vehicle collisions in the state, the junction of I-80 and I-84. This $1 million investment will help leverage additional millions of dollars in federal grant funding specifically for wildlife crossings accessible through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 that Utah Sen. Mitt Romney helped negotiate.
In many ways, Utah is a shining example leading the nation on this issue. In 2017, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources founded the Utah Wildlife Migration Initiative to document, preserve and enhance the movement of wildlife throughout Utah. The initiative has employed GPS tracking technology to monitor species migrations across the state, as well as to identify the most dangerous vehicle collision hotspots to inform future policy and planning.
In a time when it seems like Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on much, leaders such as Owens and Schultz are crossing the aisle to make our roads safer for people and wildlife. As Utah continues to grow and traffic continues to increase, we can expect new barriers to impede our migrating wildlife.
That’s why we need to continue to build on these recent victories. We need reliable federal funding as well as dedicated state resources to leverage these federal funds into the future. I applaud Utah’s leaders for this recent success, now let’s roll up our sleeves, keep building on this momentum, and continue to show other states across the West how to collaborate and get things done. Our people and our wildlife are depending on it.
Joshua Coursey is the Muley Fanatic Foundation president/CEO. MFF was established in 2012 and has 17 chapters across seven states including two in Utah: the Oquirrh-Stansbury Chapter out of Tooele and the NE Utah Chapter out of Tremonton. For more information, go to muleyfanatic.org