A study in the Journal of Wildlife Management published in January reports that, since the highway became four lanes in 2012, vehicle-elk collisions near Greater Sudbury have more than doubled.
Animals circumventing the highway fencing resulted in a more than two-fold increase in the rate of wildlife-vehicle collisions, retired Cambrian College and Laurentian University biology professor Joe Hamr said.
“At the end of the fencing they (elk) would just start crossing the highway and that’s where most of them got killed.”
Area elk were studied for five years prior to the highway expansion and five years after. Before the expansion, an average of one elk was killed every two years along that section of the highway. Following it, three elk were killed every two years. The study determined that, following construction, the elk herd shifted notably northward, which situated some elk past the north end of the exclusion fencing (that prevented them from crossing the highway) and increased their susceptibility to elk-vehicle collisions.
It was also noted that subsequent studies failed to detect a single elk passing over the highway on the wildlife overpass that was constructed with the elk herd in mind. That project was also accompanied by 10 kilometres of exclusion fencing, 27 one-way gates, one large underpass, and one creek bridge pathway. These efforts came with a multi-million-dollar price tag.
A cautionary tale
Unfortunately, the study points out that the mitigation efforts were not suited to adapting to unanticipated shifts in animal distribution — something the study considered “a cautionary tale.”
“Financial and engineering considerations may have played a larger role in determining the mitigation design than ecological considerations dictated by local landscape ecology and elk habits. This resulted in the sub-optimal placement of collision mitigation infrastructure on the southern fringe of the elk range where elk were not present,” according to the study.
Co–author David Lieske, associate professor at Mount Allison University, New Brunswick, said planners need to consider the latest wildlife science when designing fencing and overpasses to prevent animal collisions. “The idea of build it once and leave it alone is not a good approach.”
In 2012 there were an estimated 200 elk in the Greater Sudbury area. Today that number may be as low as 100.
The report also stated that between 2012 and 2017, trains hit six elk annually.