States sniff out ways to get deer off roads

  • Article by: Chao Xiong
  • Star Tribune
  • January 29, 2007 - 8:45 PM

The highways and byways of Minnesota could be sporting the scent of wolf urine if a state transportation official gets his way.

Bob Weinholzer plans to propose a research project using real or synthetic urine from predators such as wolves, coyotes and bears as a deer deterrent along state roads to decrease the number of deer-vehicle crashes.

His idea will be presented as part of a two-day meeting of transportation officials from eight states that begins today in Arden Hills. The states have pooled their money and brain power to combat the problem, which kills about 200 people nationwide each year.

"I think it's a problem in every state but Hawaii," said Weinholzer, programs administrator for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

In 2005, two people were killed in 4,176 deer-vehicle crashes reported in Minnesota, according to MnDOT. Numbers for 2006 were not yet available. Weinholzer said such crashes cost the nation's drivers about $1.4 billion annually in property damage, death and injuries.

Representatives from Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin are also part of the newly formed Deer-Vehicle Crash Information Research Center. They'll convene for the first time in Arden Hills today and Wednesday to propose and vote on research projects to fund with their combined $280,000.

Weinholzer said combining funds is the only way most states can afford long-term thorough research. It's not an uncommon practice in transportation research.

"You get a better, bigger research project done and more professionally," said Steve Gent, traffic and safety engineer for the Iowa Department of Transportation.

'No good, easy solutions'

Experts say deer-vehicle crashes are usually not very serious and most often result in damage to cars. But their sheer numbers makes the issue a priority for many states.

Deer-vehicle crashes in Iowa grew from about 4,800 annually two decades ago to about 13,000 annually in recent years, Gent said. In that same time period, Iowa's deer population has grown from about 70,000 to 260,000, he said. Minnesota's deer population is about 1.3 million.

Nationwide the number of reported crashes is probably just a small picture of the real issue. Many drivers don't report crashes for fear of the effect on their insurance rates, transportation officials said.

"There are no good, easy solutions from a transportation perspective," Gent said. "Pretty much all research shows that two things work: one is to reduce the size of the deer herd, which is very controversial. The other is to put up a deer fence. All you do is move the problem."

That's where wolf urine comes in. Predator urine has been used before, but the method and effects aren't widely known, Weinholzer said. The urine is placed in canisters set far from the roadway, the hope being that the smell will trigger an instinct in deer to flee.

Weinholzer concedes that deer in Iowa probably don't naturally come across wolf urine -- or bear urine, for that matter, but that's part of the study: Will a predator's urine set off an reaction built into an animal that's never known its foe?

It's a gamble Gent said he's willing to take.

"It's all for the common good," he said.

A Minnesota effort

MnDOT is funding its own, separate deer study next month near Camden State Park in southwestern Minnesota. Lasers will be set up 35 to 60 feet from the road shooting two beams 6 inches apart so that only sizable animals can trigger both simultaneously, Weinholzer said. When both lasers are triggered, a signal is delivered to a light atop a deer crossing sign. The lights flash for about a minute warning drivers to slow down, Weinholzer said.

Ten signs along Hwy. 23 will be outfitted with the lights for about a year. Between 40 and 80 deer are killed by cars on that stretch of road annually, Weinholzer said.

"Slowing down is the biggest key," he said. "You could never stop all deer crashes."

Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391 •

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