White and brown feathers—the underside of a wing—splay open across my windshield. An owl, probably. The bird swoops over the cab of the truck—safely, I’d like to believe. But the metallic dink, as tiny as it was, leaves me breathless.
It's late, and I'm hauling ass home from Las Cruces after a three-day long reporting trip. I've seen mountains worth protecting and a riverbed dried up. Johnny Cash is singing me in through the dark, and now I've likely walloped an owl hunting its evening meal. I've gone from delighted road warrior who was yelling out the words to "Big River" to a nauseous, wary driver dreading the inevitability of slamming into more creatures with my petroleum-fueled, hunk-of-metal death machine.
In daylight, the view between Truth or Consequences and Socorro is all about shifting light upon the Fra Cristobal and the San Mateo mountains and long expanses of creosote bush, which electrifies the air with what most of us call the scent of rain. At night though, the view shrinks and sharpens. The reflective paint of the highway dashes, red taillights, an oncoming pair of headlights. I see darting shapes and glowing eyes.
For the next hour, animals pop from the darkness. First, a small, low-to-the-ground mammal lingers at the edge of the pavement. Then a fox dashes across the road ahead of the tractor-trailer I'm readying to pass. Near Lemitar, a coyote saunters across the two-lane highway. I wish I could peel back the darkness and see who else is out there. And I wonder how many animals don't make it across the road.
The short answer? Nobody knows. In New Mexico, the state Department of Transportation tracks animal crash data based on police reports. Between 2002 and 2011, the agency recorded traffic accidents caused by encounters with two skunks, five badgers, six porcupines, eight turkey vultures, 12 mountain lions, 14 crows, 29 birds, 94 "game animals," 117 "other animals," 134 "unknown animals," 136 black bears, 151 pronghorn, 202 coyotes, 1,840 elk and 7,461 deer.
And those are just the collisions that resulted in a call for help. Between 50 to 85 percent of wildlife deaths by cars and trucks go unreported, insiders say.
On top of that, think of all the smaller species: the gopher snake that chooses to coil and hiss rather than slither and retreat, rabbits that jut from the side of the road at night, and the courting sparrows who don't break it up before the light turns green, and traffic moves through the intersection. Then there are the unidentifiable blots on the road. You know what I mean. You're about to pass a flattened animal; there's an ear raised or a tuft of tail waving in the traffic. But the species evades identification when you're traveling past at a speed of 65 mph. You've got people to see, places to go. Who has time to stop and stare at the losers who don't make it across the road?
MILES OF MITIGATING
Both the state government and citizen groups have floated ideas about how to reduce roadside wildlife-related crashes, and officials have even taken some steps to change the statistics. Those efforts aren't always as successful as they could be for a variety of reasons. To work, projects need long-term maintenance. They also need travelers to actually pay attention. Those signs warning of crossing elk? Drivers passing through those migration corridors actually have to take extra caution, watch carefully and slow down. Not only that, but sometimes a barrier project works for one species, but not another. And of course, accidents just happen—and they always will.
The University of New Mexico, State Police and Department of Game and Fish worked together in 2011 to identify highway segments with at least ten crashes in five years involving large animals—54 road segments statewide.
The study showed that especially in rural parts of the state, collisions with wildlife are a significant problem. The five most crashprone roads are the Raton Pass on Interstate 25, which saw 83 accidents due to collisions with big game animals between 2006 and 2010; US 70 between Ruidoso Downs and Hondo (77 crashes); US 50 in Cuba to New Mexico Highway 537 (73); US 64 between Tierra Amarilla and Chama (60); and US 70 between Tularosa and Bent (56).
Then, last year a group of elementary and middle school students from Wild Friends helped secure passage of a legislative memorial directing state agencies to prioritize collision mitigation measures on the stretches of road that are most dangerous for animals. As a result, warning signs with flashing beacons have been installed on US 64 between Tierra Amarilla and Chama. Vegetation has also been mowed back from the road so drivers can see animals sooner and brake faster.
One to two million collisions between cars and large wildlife species occur every year on the nation's highways, and those numbers are steadily increasing, according to a 2008 report from the Federal Highway Administration. It's a public safety issue to be sure, but the impacts to wildlife aren't negligible.
While mule deer aren't going extinct anytime soon, people could show a bit more respect for our furry and feathered brethren.
"We've created these human systems that make it very hard for wildlife to thrive in them," says Elizabeth Jennings, executive director of Animal Protection of New Mexico.
"One of the important things about wildlife is for them to be able to take advantage of their entire regions where they can move and breed." Fragmented habitat and isolated populations lead to inbreeding, which weakens a species' genetics over the long term.
The biggest man-made factor in such fragmentation is development, and particularly high-speed, well traveled roadways. Despite the biological needs of animals to feed, move and breed, they're constantly up against the boundaries we've set for them.
Just east of Albuquerque, Tijeras Canyon separates the Sandia and Manzano mountains. Interstate 40 squeezes through there, and so does a section of the old Route 66, which winds from the town of Tijeras, through Carnuel and on into the Duke City. Over the past century, the canyon has become an important route for dangerous, fast-moving humans. Fans of author Edward Abbey might recall that's where the hero of his novel The Brave Cowboy was killed trying to cross the canyon.
Sleepy, and just having turned the curve that brings the lights of Albuquerque into view, a trucker drives through the pass: “He was going too fast, too fast; he pushed hard on the brake pedal, hearing his tires screech and shudder on the asphalt pavement,” Abbey writes in the 1956 novel that was adapted into the movie Lonely Are the Brave. “Forty tons, 70 miles an hour. He fought with the giant machine for a thousand feet before he could bring it to a full stop.”
It's a scene that still resonates today, though cowboys aren't the problem.
In 2003, the state approved a $1.6 billion investment in highway infrastructure, including plans for improvements to that stretch of I-40. A coalition of citizens, along with the Game and Fish Department, wanted to take that opportunity to create better conditions for crossing deer and other species. "Animals need to move around," says Jennings, "and to the degree we can make that happen, anything counts."
During surveys of the underpasses, biologists and volunteers found the tracks of deer, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, bobcats, ringtails and bears. They surveyed local drivers about their experiences, mapped all that data and came up with a plan to keep wildlife off the highway. Eventually, as part of the Tijeras Canyon Safe Passage Project, the Department of Transportation installed eightfoot-tall chain link fences and seven-foot-tall electric fences; a handful of pads, sort of like electrified cattle guards, to keep animals from walking up the highway exits and entrances; and "escape ramps" for animals that get trapped between the fence and the highway. They also cleared brush from the underpasses and culverts.
Well aware there are no cowboys to cross the road, even if they could clear the waist-high concrete barriers flanking both sides of the roadway and the median, I'm still a little sweaty-palmed on that stretch of highway. But now that I know about the bears, I hate it even more.
Even when we spend the time and money to try and do what's right—for public safety and wildlife—as long as the roads remain, there are going to be collisions. And even as one species is helped, another might be at risk.
Bernalillo County Sheriff's Deputy Tim Miller guesses that last fall alone, between 10 and 12 bears were hit trying to cross the interstate near Tijeras. Those are the ones he knows about for sure, and he's heard about a few more.
"It's usually a truck," he says. "They get clipped in the head and roll over to the side of the road."
Last fall was a particularly tough time for black bears in the Sandias. With drought squeezing their food supplies, they were desperately trying to fatten up for hibernation. Ranging farther afield to find food, they were taking greater risks.
When the electric fence works, Miller says, it's a deterrent to the bears. "But it's been pretty much out of order, so they can just climb the fence," he says, noting that thieves steal the brass bars, and accidents can knock the fence out of whack. "And then it's a narrow highway. Once they're out there, they don't know which way to go and they get confused by the headlights."
Having spent his fair share of nights working graveyard shift, Miller says that being out on the highway at night can be disorienting, even when you're just trying to fix a flat tire.
"I tell people, 'Pull over as far to the right and watch the traffic,'" he says. "Watch the lights, and think about what that must be like for an animal."
Downwind from the compost piles, the air's rank. And I'm distracted by the femurs and vertebrae poking out from the woodchips at Montana's Blackfoot River Valley carcass-composting facility. It looks like a typical highway department roadside lot. But it's actually sort of special.
The composting project was born of a problem with boneyards, the places where ranchers leave dead calves and livestock. Whenever grizzly bears become habituated to ranches as food sources, they have to be relocated or killed.
To reduce those interactions, state and federal agencies decided it made sense to collect the carcasses, along with roadkill, cordon them off behind electric fences, and compost the remains. After 60 days, only bones remain.
There's no such facility in New Mexico, but it got me wondering what does happen to all those thousands of animals. Like in Montana, here it's up to the transportation department to pick up the carcasses. The smaller ones are buried or thrown off the side of the road, and the bigger ones require a tractor to dig a hole.
In some cases, there's even an effort to salvage the meat.
In New Mexico, it's illegal to hit an elk or deer, then load it into your car and bring it home to butcher. But Game and Fish does keep a list of people who want to eat roadkill.
Clint Henson, the public affairs officer with the Game and Fish office in Raton, explains the process: "You hit a deer, you call me, I come pick it up and you go on your way," he says. "I take the animal, come back to the office, contact someone on the list, I sell it to them and I give them a receipt." He doesn't charge much, usually $10, $15 or $20. Henson says that when he checks out the animal, he thinks to himself, "Would I want to eat this?" "Sometimes it's not salvageable, and I take it out in the woods and let the hawks and eagles and coyotes have it," he says. "But when it is, and I call someone on the list, they're always really happy."
Hitting wildlife isn't just a problem in rural New Mexico. Consider the last time you sat at the light at Cerrillos Road and St. Francis Drive. Notice any prairie dogs there?
While local officials have expressed concerns about fender-benders when people brake for the animals, Denise Saccone, with the Prairie Dog Alliance of Santa Fe, says her major concern is the animals.
When one prairie dog is hit by a car, there's a good chance more will be hit: "They retrieve their dead," says Saccone. "When one is hit, at least two others will run out to try and retrieve their family member and return it to the burrow."
That's not a choice. That's instinct.
We make choices all the time. To swerve to miss an animal—and risk colliding with oncoming traffic—or clutch the steering wheel and continue straight ahead. We choose to build roads through elk migration corridors, to increase speed limits and to embrace a way of life that demands constant motion. Sometimes we choose to build fences, install flashing lights and commit to keeping deer and bears off the road. But the big choice we've made—the one that we keep coming up against, whether we're talking about climate change or roadkill—is to believe ourselves separate from wildlife and the landscapes we're supposed to share.
Nobody's going to like this story—I don't even like it—but I'm going to tell it anyway. I grew up in the 1970s and '80s, when animals were commonly portrayed as clever puppets (a la Sesame Street and The Muppets), whistling Disney characters and anthropomorphized pretty ponies. I always loved animals, even swore off eating them for more than 20 years, but frankly, I'd objectified them.
Then a few years ago, I helped a friend butcher an elk he'd shot and killed. ("Helped" is an overstatement. I watched him slice the meat from an increasingly small carcass, and my job was to wrap the meat in plastic and butcher paper, then mark the cut in black marker.)
Watching the elk's deconstruction and seeing how its parts had fit together, just like my parts, gave me a more empathetic appreciation for animals. We are so much alike, just a collections of cells, bones, muscle, ligaments, tendons. Our brains function because of electrical impulses, and we're guided through life by instinct and knowledge.
When wild animals are squeezed into the habitat we define, which we continue shrinking and slicing, they're still going to search for food, mates and new territory. Even if obstacles and hazards exist. And just like us, they feel fear. And sometimes, terror.
We can slice through the night on a ribbon of asphalt, believing that we're isolated from the world all around. Or we can read the signs all around us.
Laura Paskus is a freelance journalist based in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.