U.S. Roads Kill A Million A Day
by Mark Matthew Braunstein
Sunday sundown. A cool breeze sweeps the land. A snake coils its frigid body upon some asphalt still radiating warmth from the sunset. A motorbike speeds by. SPLAT!
Monday morning. A robin notices the half-baked snake. A car approaches. Its drowsy, distracted driver sips from a 7-11 commuter's coffee cup. The robin stretches its neck to peck. SNAP!
Midday. Two ravenous ravens spot the flightless robin. One swoops down just as a Mack truck rounds the bend. SMASH!
Midnight. A coon drags the roadside robin and raven into the brush, where it dines in safety. Thus ends a morbid cycle begun by a motorcycle.
The Numbing Numbers
Every year our nation's experimenters kill 100 million lab animals, hunters kill 200 million "game" animals, and motorists kill nearly 400 million road animals. Only America's meat-eaters take a larger toll than its motorists.
For every dead animal counted, three or four more die unnoticed. Even at 55 m.p.h., we smell the remains of far more dead skunks than we see. The walking wounded die far from the road, so only instantly killed animals are seen and get counted.
But who's counting? During the late 1950s, in a roadside version of the Audubon's Christmas bird counts, the Humane Society of the United States conducted some Fourth of July body counts. During the 1970s, again groping for numbers, the Humane Society compiled data from isolated scientific studies of single roads or single species. Its secondary sources yielded the same national death toll as its field studies: one million animals a day.
Two regional surveys during 1993 and 1994 offer updated species death counts. Called "Dr. Splatt" and coordinated by the preppy Pinkerton Academy, the ongoing project involves mostly pupils in grades six to nine from 40 schools throughout the Northeast U.S. Concerned readers of the monthly Animal People also participate. Reliable death data, however, still remains elusive. During hazardous weather, protective moms no doubt keep their kids off the streets. And kids may lack skills to discern a squashed squirrel from a splat rat.
State wildlife agencies tally road fatalities only for large mammals so rare that they are listed as endangered species or so common that they are hunted as fair game.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chronicles the 47,000 Americans who die each year in traffic accidents. But it neglects to collect data on the animals whose deaths it does not even define as accidents. In the American lexicon, humans are living flesh and traffic deaths. But animals are dead meat and roadkills.
Meanwhile the only road with no roadkill is the information superhighway. When you are searching on your computers, database searches yield few citations and provide fewer clues. Humorous cookbooks dish out roadkill recipes, but no food for thought. "Flattened Fauna," a satirical field guide, offers barely one page of straight facts. Even some dictionaries fall silent.
Silence, dead silence. No mainstream environmental group includes roadkill on its agenda, and few animal-protection groups address the issue. Friends of Animals printed warnings on bumperstickers without saying much. As though it had been counting sheep, even the Humane Society has fallen asleep.
Cars are the biggest source of smog. For every American who dies from riding cars, another dies from breathing them. Animals also breathe, and also die. As cars pollute air, roads erode soil.
Also, four million miles of roads have steamrolled across
this nation, fragmenting and destroying wildlife habitat. Habitat loss means
animals must run away from home. With
Fauna fatalities peak along secondary roads through edge habitat (where two types of habitat meet). Add more deaths during late summer and early fall, when spring-born leave home to strike out on their own. And add more on new and full moons, when drivers seem more reckless and animals less reclusive. And yet more deaths on Friday and Saturday nights, when celebratory drivers get "smashed" along with unsuspecting animals.
Blacktop Ribbons of Death
The widening of a state road into an interstate highway through Michigan's northern peninsula resulted in a first year fivefold increase in deer kill. Even death tolls on old roads can be alarming. Pennsylvania's roads in 1985 underwent no new major construction, yet over 26,000 deer still were killed. In wintry northern states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, sick or starved animals travel on plowed roads through deep snow. Weakened animals sometimes cannot jump or climb over icy snow banks formed by plowing. At critical meetings with automobiles, the animals slip on ice and into oblivion.
In the West, roadsides are laced with barbed wire to prevent cattle and sheep from prematurely becoming dead meat. But barbed-wire fencing ranks second only to hunting as the leading cause of death to mule deer and pronghorn antelope. Every sunrise illuminates impaled or ensnared wildlife who reached neither the shorter road nor the greener grass on the other side of the fence.
Still, many roadkills are not the result of attempted crossings. Many animals are fatally penalized for moving violations along roads, not across roads. While wider roads inflict more habitat loss, narrow or no shoulders is worse. Both motorists and animals remain unseen by each other.
Paving the Way to Extinction
Woodland caribou survive as a single herd of 50 diehards in northern Idaho and southern British Columbia. The U.S. Forest Service blames roadkills, not habitat loss, as the greatest threat to their survival. British Columbia Highway 3, which bisects their remaining range in the Selkirk Mountains, was built along their traditional trail. But now it is their road less traveled.
Of our nation's large mammals, Florida panthers hover nearest extinction. During the early 1980s, the panthers suffered nine roadkillsóhalf their entire population.
According to the state Department of Fish and Game, southern California's scant 40 cougars, already decimated by poaching, are threatened even more by Interstate 15.
During the 1970s and 1980s, at least 357 of Florida's threatened black bears blackened the blacktop. That's one-quarter of their present population.
Fewer than 300 of Florida's miniature Key deer survive. The Nature Conservancy estimates one deerkill nearly every week. Despite a 15-m.p.h. speed limit, driving vacationers remain the Key deer's worst enemy.
Deer Today, Gone Tomorrow
From 1993 to 1994, Ohio's deer population rose five percent, as did its deer collisions. Among its total deer population of over 500,000, there were 25,636 reported cases of deer colliding with cars. That's 1 in 20óand that's only what's reported.
Collisions with motorists are usually fatal for the deer. In 1992, New York state motorists reported killing 11,822 deer. Cornell University researchers found that, for every deerkill reported, four more died and one more was injured.
Human casualties also occur. In 1994, Michigan reported 56,666 deer collisions, of which five resulted in human fatalities. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, every year 120 people are killed and 8,000 are injured in deer collisions. For all animal collisions, it's 150 people dead and 10,000 injured.
Animals Need a Paving Moratorium
Replacing 20 cars with one bus, and 50 trucks with one train, would reduce congestion on present highways and postpone or eliminate the "need" for new ones. This could revive our ailing public transit and mass freight systems.
Another simple equation is too controversial for most people to embrace and most lawmakers to endorse: Fewer affluent people, and fewer people generally, equal fewer motor vehicles, fewer roads and fewer roadkills.
Legislators can reduce the speed and enhance the safety of our cars. Enforced speed limits would afford greater protection for every animal on the road, and for every motorist as well. But as long as automakers manufacture cars capable of cruising at 110 m.p.h., twice most legal speed limits, whatever lawmakers dictate will be disobeyed by chronic speedsters. Silent but deadly, next century's electric cars pose the greatest risk of all.
With dwindling and damaged habitat, animals are losing ground in humanity's broader war against wildlife. In time, the rate of roadkill will declineónot from lack of cars or roads, but from lack of wildlife.
Mark Matthew Braunstein authored "Radical Vegetarianism" and is a nature photographer. He is paraplegic, so he has an excuse for driving.