Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
Around this time of year drivers are more apt to notice dead deer along the sides of highways. You may have heard that hunting is the cause – that hunters scare deer from the woods and that the roving animals are then more likely to be struck by cars. This is not true.
But a human activity does play a major role in the surge of deer and vehicle accidents that occurs each fall. It’s actually an indoor activity: We set our clocks back, ending daylight savings time.
“White-tail deer are most active at dawn and dusk,” explains Shawn Haskell, deer team chair for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. That is true throughout the year, he says.
What the autumn time shift does, says Colonel Robert Rooks, director of law enforcement for the Fish and Wildlife Department, is suddenly move many after-work commutes from daylight to dusk. “It’s a traffic pattern,” he says. The number of deer-car accidents climbs steeply through October as days shorten and more driving occurs near dusk. And then the number peaks around Nov. 1, around the date clocks are turned back, Rooks reports.
At this time of year, most accidents involving deer happen from 7 to 9 a.m. and then between 5 and 8 p.m., which are the peak commuting times. The clincher? Fewer deer are struck over weekends.
And more of these accidents occur during commuting hours in fall, because of the autumn rut, says Kent Gustafson, deer project leader for the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game. Male deer, especially, are roaming to find does, and “are not paying quite as much attention to what is going on around them.” The rut peaks about mid-November, but bucks begin moving as early as mid-October.
Last year 3,454 accidents involving deer were reported to state game wardens in Vermont, says Rooks. (There were 237 accidents involving moose.)
In New Hampshire, Gustafson says, wardens only tally the number of the killed deer that drivers are permitted to take home for consumption. That’s about 1,250 per year, he says. A State Farm Insurance company report estimates that twice that number of accidents involving deer occurs in the Granite State each year.
State Farm estimates that nationally 1 million vehicular accidents involving deer, moose and elk occur each year. The states with the largest numbers of such accidents are Pennsylvania, averaging nearly 100,000, and Michigan, with 95,000.
Officials in Vermont and New Hampshire say that the number of deer killed by cars in the twin states is not a major concern from a wildlife management perspective. But there is an undeniable human toll. In each state dozens of drivers are injured, sometimes fatally. Rooks says that in Vermont about every five years a highway accident involving a deer results in a human death, and often the victim is a motorcyclist. Each year about one person in each state is killed in an accident involving moose.
There is no single proven way to limit accidents with deer, says Sarah Barnum, who works for the environmental consulting firm, Normandeau Associates in Bedford, N.H. Barnum who advises on wildlife and roadways says fences are expensive and can be impractical because there are so many intersections and driveways through which deer can gain access to main roadways. Wildlife underpasses and overpasses are often too expensive to construct. She says that even warning signs don’t always do the trick, because they are often ignored.
Some western states recently have installed signs that flash lights when detectors sense a large animal in the road; and some states put up special deer-crossing signs only at the times of year known to be most risky for drivers.
Experts emphasize the importance of basic precautions. They suggest motorists heed all deer-warning signs along the highway. Deer travel in groups, so be on the lookout for a second, third or fourth deer after you’ve seen the first cross the road. Drive slowly and be extra alert at this time of year at dawn and dusk. The last place you want to see a deer is caught in your own headlights.
The author, Madeline Bodin, is a science and wildlife writer from Andover, Vermont.