A set of long, black skid marks that lead to a blood smear on a highway is an all too familiar sight for motorists who travel through Wyoming.
Wildlife collisions are frequent, and sometimes catastrophic for people and the big game herds of pronghorn, mule deer, elk and moose that Wyoming is famous for.
A large group of state and nonprofit organization officials met Thursday near where Dry Piney Creek crosses Highway 189 north of La Barge for a short ceremony to dedicate a recently completed wildlife diversion project aimed at protecting motorists and big game animals.
Darin Westby, director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation, said the Dry Piney Wildlife Crossing Project cost $15 million and includes nine underpasses, 33 miles of fencing, 2 miles of new road and “an amazing amount of partnership and cooperation.”
A similar project west of Kemmerer on Highway 30 has shown to reduce deer-vehicle collisions by 81% after three years.
Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, grew up in Sublette County and said he can remember a time when “you could almost walk from La Barge to Big Piney on backs of dead mule deer.”
The multimillion-dollar efforts to mitigate big game deaths “is fulfilling in so many ways to be able to say those deer are not going to be on this highway getting creamed by cars anymore,” Budd said. “It will reduce property damage and the threat to human life as well.”
Project Nuts And Bolts
A new 8-foot-tall wire mesh fence lines the highway on both sides for nearly the entire distance from Big Piney to La Barge. Underneath the highway and nearly invisible to passing motorists are nine concrete wildlife underpasses that are already being used by numerous species.
The fence helps funnel the animals toward the underpasses. In addition, there are numerous one-way escape paths called “jumps” where animals that become trapped inside the highway right of way can climb up a dirt bank to a break in the fence and escape.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has evidence of animals using the new paths under the highway, according to several trail cameras placed near the overpasses.
Game and Fish Deputy Director Angi Bruce told Cowboy State Daily her department is confident that elk, moose, mule deer and numerous other wildlife species will use the underpasses. Game and Fish officials are hopeful that the more-timid pronghorn will learn to use the underpasses as well, but whether they will remains uncertain.
Pronghorn May Be Too Timid
Bruce said wildlife overpasses, two of which are on Highway 191 in Sublette County at Trapper’s Point and about 2 miles north of Daniel Junction, are frequently used by pronghorn and other animals. However, the overpasses cost about $10 million each as opposed to the underpasses on Highway 189, which range from $1.25 million to $1.5 million each.
The project near Daniel on Highway 191 eliminated pronghorn collisions after three years and reduced mule deer collisions by 79%, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department reports.
The underpass just north of La Barge, where Thursday’s ceremony was held, is a large arch similar in shape, but smaller than the two overpasses on Highway 191. Its arch allows for increased visibility from one side to the other. It’s the only arched concrete underpass on the project. The other eight are square.
“This curved arch adds more visibility than the box culverts,” she said. “We hope a large portion of the antelope will use it, but it may not be as effective as the overpasses where we know 90% of the antelope will use them. If we can get to 50 to 60%A, I would call that success.”
Wyoming Range Mule Deer Herd’s Future
When asked if the project will help the Wyoming Range mule deer herd rebuild after the disastrous winter of 2022-23 when as many as 80% of the herd was lost to severe winter conditions, Bruce said absolutely.
“This project provides an easy pathway to additional winter habitat,especially for the pronghorn and mule deer that need to cross this highway,” she said. “This is an important migratory route where we know there is daily movement across here in the winter.”
Future Wildlife Crossing Projects
Smaller projects to make life easier for wildlife and travelers are numerous around Wyoming. However, Bruce said this is the first large-scale project completed in the last 20 years. In 2017, Game and Fish held a summit meeting for wildlife and transportation stakeholders. They ranked their ideas based on two criteria — biology and safety.
The group identified 240 hot spots in Wyoming and narrowed them down to 40.
“This project scored through the roof because of the mule deer habitat on the Wyoming Range and the number of collisions on this highway,” Bruce said.
The next project will also be on Highway 189, but farther south near Kemmerer, she said. The new TerraPower nuclear power plant planned for south Lincoln County will increase traffic on Highway 189. Bruce said that’s why the project became a priority.
Another large project under discussion is on Interstate 80 near Arlington. The Halleck Ridge Project is an elk bridge that would span six lanes of the interstate. It is estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $40 million, Bruce said.
A third project on the priority list is to improve wildlife crossing near Dubois, where bighorn sheep collisions are a concern.
Westby complimented the state, federal and nonprofit organizations thathelped raise money for the Dry Piney Project. They include Sublette County, The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Volgenau Foundation, Muley Fanatic Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation, The Wyldlife Fund, Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust and the Knobloch Family Foundation.