Minnesota drivers may hit 20 times the deer reported to state
A U of M study is looking for collision hotspots and how deer accidents can be reduced.
DULUTH — Along a stretch of U.S. Highway 53 just outside of town, University of Minnesota Duluth biologist Ron Moen has investigated 25 dead deer since August, victims of what highway engineers call deer-vehicle collisions.
But if you asked the state Department of Public Safety how many deer are killed along those 8 miles of highway, their records show it averages just 1.1 per year. Only 17 deer-vehicle collisions were reported to police along that stretch from 2006 through 2020.
Moen is finding the same thing in other places, too — far more vehicle-killed deer than are reported to police and on to the state.
“It’s looking like only 10% or less ... are reported,” Moen said.
Officially, Minnesota has about 2,000 deer-vehicle collisions reported to the state each year. But State Farm Insurance, which keeps its own statistics on animal-vehicle collisions, says that number hit 42,874 last year in Minnesota, making it one of the top 10 states in the country for collisions with deer. In Wisconsin, State Farm says drivers hit some 70,000 deer per year.
If State Farm is right, that means state highway officials really have no idea where or when the vast majority of deer-vehicle collisions occur, and that means they can’t work to reduce those collisions until they get better data. That’s why Moen is out searching for deer carcasses, part of a two-year study of deer-vehicle collisions on Minnesota highways.
Moen is the biologist who knows how deer behave. Raphael Stern, an expert on highway safety engineering at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, crunches the numbers. The study, funded by a grant from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, hopes to decipher the vast discrepancy between officially reported deer-vehicle collisions and how many actually occur.
“That’s why we’re trying to find out ... how many are there, really, and where do they occur most often. And then is there something we can do to bring that number down?” said Moen, a veteran wildlife researcher at UMD’s Natural Resources Research Institute. “If we could bring that total down even by a few percentage points, that would be millions of dollars saved. And maybe some human lives saved … and some wildlife saved. There’s not a lot of wildlife research that can have such a concrete payback for the investment.”
State law requires an accident to be reported to police if anyone is hurt or if the damage is $1,000 or more. With AAA now saying the average price of repairing a deer collision at $5,000 and rising, it’s not immediately clear why so many are unreported. A dead deer along most rural roads is hardly worth a 911 call, many Northlanders would agree.
Some motorists don’t have insurance that covers deer collisions, others may opt not to report to prevent their premiums from going up. But clearly many motorists are reporting the hits to their insurance companies and not law enforcement.
“I think a lot of times it’s just more of a fender bender, the vehicle is still drivable, and the person just goes on their way and reports it later to their insurance company but not to police,” said Stern, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering and principal investigator on the deer-vehicle collision project.
Why did the deer cross the road here?
On a blustery March morning, Moen was investigating yet another dead deer along the four-lane stretch of Highway 53, a big doe in the median near Caribou Lake Road. He takes photos and gets a GPS location for each carcass. He’s still in the early stages of gathering data, but Moen says it’s becoming more clear where many deer-vehicle collisions occur and why.
An average of three or four people die in Minnesota from deer-vehicle collisions each year. It was less than a mile away from this spot where an initial deer-vehicle collision led to a multi-car accident that killed a woman and injured several other people in November 2020.
“This is showing up as one of those hotspots,” said Moen, who is looking at specific segments of various types of roads, from heavily traveled to lightly traveled, two-lane and four, suburban and rural. He's getting carcass reports for those roads form other biologists and his own scouting trips. He'll later plug in the limited data from the state. (Moen has to get to the deer quickly, he noted, because many fresh deer carcasses “walk away” as people claim them for the meat.) Eventually researchers can use data from specific road types to extrapolate out to a more accurate total number of deer-vehicle collisions statewide.
Highway 53 here runs through a convergence of suburban and rural landscapes. Houses are farther apart. There’s more woods, but still plenty of houses with gardens and small hobby farms with great good for deer. And there’s probably not as much hunting going on this close to houses, and maybe fewer predators, than farther out of town.
“This area probably has a pretty high deer density,” Moen said. “Plus you have a four-lane highway with high-speed traffic. It’s a bad combination."
Both for the deer and the drivers.
On a recent 180-mile search from Duluth to Dassel, Minnesota, along state Highway 23 — a heavily traveled highway that runs through prime deer habitat — Moen counted 65 deer carcasses that had accumulated over winter. That's more than one every three miles. State records show only six per year along the entire route.
Stern said the study may also reveal deer-vehicle collisions “coldspots,” places where few if any of the animals are struck. Those areas could be studied to see if factors other than fewer deer or fewer drivers were involved.
By far the highest number of deer-vehicle collisions in Minnesota occur in the Twin Cities, with prime suburban deer habitat criss-crossed with high-speed roadways and lots of drivers.
“I think a higher percentage get reported down there, that’s one reason. But they also have so many more people on the roads, too. … And it’s really good deer habitat,” Moen said.
In 2019 185 people died in deer-vehicle collisions across the U.S. and some 10,000 others were injured, according to federal traffic safety statistics. In the last five years in Minnesota, 18 people died as a result of deer-vehicle collisions, 15 of them were motorcyclists. Deer-vehicle collisions also resulted in 124 serious injuries, of which 109 were motorcyclists, over those five years.
State Farm Insurance, which analyzes animal-vehicle crashes each year, says American drivers hit animals more than 2 million times in the 12 months between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, most of them deer. These are collisions that require repairs, not just birds hitting the windshield or squirrels under a tire. Nationally, wildlife collisions cost $8 billion per year for things like vehicle repair, medical expenses, towing and the removal and disposal of animal carcasses, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
If State Farm’s numbers are right, motorists in Minnesota are killing nearly twice as many deer each year as archery deer hunters.
Highway fixes expensive, but often effective
The Minnesota Department of Transportation stopped putting up new yellow deer-crossing signs decades ago because they turned out to be a waste of money. Motorists simply didn’t change their behavior, namely slowing down where the signs were, and there was no evidence they worked to reduce collisions.
One option used in some areas are motion-activated flashing lights that sense when deer are moving out of a ditch and onto a roadway. But even then, when a system was tested near Camden State Park in southern Minnesota in the early 2000s, it turned out most drivers didn’t slow down. The signs eventually stopped working and were removed and not replaced. It was never determined if they actually reduced deer-vehicle collisions.
“We haven’t given up on them as a potential tool in some areas. But, especially people who might drive the same stretch of road every day, and who saw the lights flashing but maybe didn’t see a deer every time, they just stopped slowing down,” said Chris Smith, natural resources program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Across the U.S. and Canada billions of dollars are being spent to keep wildlife off highways, namely using overpasses and underpasses, bridges and tunnels designed specifically for animals, often in conjunction with extensive fencing to funnel animals to cross at the right place. They have been used in western Canada’s Banff National Park for nearly 30 years, with surprisingly positive results, with elk, deer and even grizzly bears crossing over four-lane highways without collisions. Results in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Alberta show 50 to 90% reductions in vehicle collisions with animals, and trail cameras placed at engineered wildlife crossings often show a surprising variety of species use them often.
In Vermont, underpasses shuttle snakes and salamanders under busy roads. In Florida, it’s panthers crossing under I-75, Alligator Alley. In California, the $87 million Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing being built over the Route 101 freeway on the western side of Los Angeles County is hoped to allow mountain lions to easily cross eight lanes of traffic, substantially expanding their habitat.
Because tunnels are cheaper to build than bridges, they have become the more common solution. In Minnesota, several projects have seen wider bridges and culverts added at stream crossings with hopes animals would stay off the traffic lanes, including along the North Shore and under Highway 53 north of Virginia. The largest and most expensive effort was recently completed under Minnesota Highway 14 in Dodge County near Owatonna. As part of a $108 million project to widen the highway in that spot, engineers added a 200-foot-long, 10-foot-wide and 9-foot-high concrete tunnel — a giant box culvert — that’s hoped to allow wildlife to pass under the road. Fencing has been added to funnel critters that would have crossed the highway to instead go through the culvert.
The wildlife crossing added about $220,000 to the highway project, but may pay off in the long run, Smith said. So far it’s too soon to tell if it’s working.
“That was an area where the DNR came in showing there was some historical deer movement there, seasonally, and we knew we had a lot of deer-vehicle collisions, so we had the information that showed it made sense,” Smith said.
Smith’s hoping the University of Minnesota study comes up with more of those specific areas where projects make sense. In western mountain states, migrating herds of deer, elk and antelope often take the same routes year-after-year, making it more obvious where wildlife crossing projects should be placed. In Minnesota, deer movement is less migratory and more habitat based, usually deer moving between resting/hiding areas and feeding areas.
“It is more random here (in Minnesota) when and why deer might cross a highway. But this study might help show where it’s more likely, where it might make sense to focus our efforts,” Smith said.
Other options include managing vegetation along roadways, Smith noted. Cutting down trees and widening ditches to offer drivers better visibility of approaching deer can help reduce collisions. But Moen also noted that those wider, grassier ditches can also attract more deer to munch on the new food sources available, especially in fall and spring.
Another option is intensive deer management: reducing the deer population in areas where more accidents occur. Duluth police have said there’s evidence that Duluth’s annual city archery hunt has reduced deer density enough to spur fewer collisions on city roads.
“That’s more of a social issue on how many deer people want in an area, how many they are willing to put up with,” Smith said.
New federal money available
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, which Congress passed Nov. 5 and President Biden signed into law Nov.15, establishes a wildlife crossing safety program. The law offers $350 million over five years for competitive grants to municipalities, states and tribes for the construction of bridges, tunnels, culverts, fencing and other infrastructure that will allow wildlife safe passage either under or over roads.
Smith said MNDOT will look at adding projects where they might help, not just to protect drivers and their pocketbooks but also to protect wildlife.
Areas where deer cross roads, such as where rivers cross roads, are actually wildlife corridors, or wildlife highways, that are being blocked by human highways. Allowing safe passage between pockets of wildlife habitat helps keep overall populations stronger, Smith noted.
“We are already going through some extensive efforts to keep turtles from being hit on roadways, both endangered and common turtles, and that’s just part of what we’re looking at," Smith said. “We can’t do it everywhere, but let’s take a look at where we can get the most bang for the buck.”
Stern, the University of Minnesota traffic engineer, said he’s interested not just as a highway safety researcher but also as a wildlife enthusiast.
“If we can make roads safer, maybe save some human lives, and also reduce our impact on wildlife, why not try?” Stern said. “Cars are not the best way to manage wildlife populations.”
Top states for deer collisions
A driver’s odds of hitting a deer this year
- West Virginia: 1 in 37.
- Montana: 1 in 39.
- South Dakota: 1 in 48.
- Pennsylvania: 1 in 54.
- Michigan: 1 in 54.
- Wisconsin: 1 in 56.
- Mississippi: 1 in 57.
- Minnesota: 1 in 58.
Source: State Farm Insurance
Tips to avoid hitting a deer
- Drive at safe speeds and always be buckled up.
- Be especially cautious from 6-9 p.m. when deer are often most active.
- Use high beam headlights as much as possible at night, especially in deer-active areas.
- Don’t swerve to avoid a deer. Swerving can cause motorists to lose control and travel off the road, or into oncoming traffic, causing an impact far worse than hitting a deer.
- Motorcyclists should avoid driving at dusk, dawn and at night.
- Don’t count on deer whistles or fences to deter deer from crossing roads.
- Watch for the reflection of deer eyes and for deer silhouettes on the shoulder of the road. If anything looks suspicious, slow down. Watch for multiple deer crossing in the same area.
- Any Minnesota resident may claim a road-killed animal by contacting a law enforcement officer. An authorization permit will be issued allowing the individual to lawfully possess the deer.
- If a deer is struck but not killed by a vehicle, keep a distance as deer may recover. If a deer does not move on, or poses a public safety risk, report the incident to a DNR conservation officer or other local law enforcement agency.
Source: Minnesota Department of Transportation
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .