LANDER, Wyo. — Mark Gocke drove north on U.S. Highway 89 toward Moran in the early morning 10 years ago in the late fall. It was late November, and Gocke hoped to station himself for elk hunting before the morning sunlight lit the valley.
He passed Antelope Flats beginning a series of S-curves. As he rounded a bend he saw an elk in the road unable to secure traction on the ice with its hooves. Gocke hit the brakes of his Ford F150 pickup, which began to slide on the road before hitting the elk. The cow elk died. Gocke paid at least $2,000 to fix his truck, and the four wheel drive still doesn’t work quite right all these years later.
Sometimes hitting wildlife is unavoidable. But in the past few years, accidents like Gocke’s are on the rise in Grand Teton National Park, and staff members are working to lower those numbers, said park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs.
Public education plan
In 2005, when vehicle-animal collisions hit 145, up from 99 accidents the year before, the park created a public education plan, Skaggs said. The plan included new signs to remind drivers to slow down. The number of accidents went down to 98 in 2008.
“We thought we were making some headway,” Skaggs said.
But the numbers began to go up again, with 127 collisions in 2009 and 162 last year.
“It was discouraging that it had bounced back up to such a point,” Skaggs said. “We’re scratching our heads and seeing what additional steps we can take to reverse this trend.”
The accidents are almost always speed-related, Skaggs said. Most of the accidents occur on Highway 89, which is in the boundaries of the park but does not require visitors to pass by a kiosk. The inner park roads, behind the kiosks, have lower speed limits and fewer accidents, she said.
Most accidents also occur in low-light situations, the early morning or evening, and most commonly hit are elk and deer.
“Given the fact that we have thousands of elk, for example, the loss of a couple dozen elk will not greatly impact the population,” said Steve Cain, a senior wildlife biologist with Grand Teton National Park.
But, on the other end of the spectrum, if a female wolverine was killed, there would be a big population impact in Grand Teton, where there are only four breeding adults in the range, Cain said.
No wolverine has been killed by a car in Grand Teton, but the animals represent the worry of the impact car accidents on animals could have, he said.
Other animal populations, such as wolves, grizzly bears or moose, also are harmed when the animals are killed by cars, Cain said. It isn’t uncommon for five or more moose to die in car accidents each year, he said.
The park’s worry about the accidents isn’t just for the animals, Skaggs said. People can be seriously injured or even killed when hitting large animals.
The park is working on cutting down the numbers of accidents by collecting data on the types of accidents, including the sexes of the drivers — more male drivers by themselves or with one passenger hit animals — and whether they are locals or visitors, which is close to evenly split.
As of May 7, cars hit two moose, three elk and two sage grouse this year, Skaggs said. The park is preparing for more accidents as it gears for its busy summer season.
As for Gocke, who is a public information specialist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, he doesn’t drive the stretch of highway where he hit the elk without thinking of the accident. He knows the timbered area is home to thousands of animals and that he might not be able to immediately see them.
“You just have to go much slower than the speed limit is and slower than you normally would,” he said. “I definitely slow down. I force myself, even when I’m late. When you hit an animal it sticks with you a while, especially when it’s a big animal. It really ruins your day, for sure. It’s a no-win situation. At a minimum, the animal is injured and you have a hefty payment to fix your car. At worst, you are going to kill an animal or you can have a human fatality.”
People often live in Wyoming in part because of the wildlife, whether it is for hunting, photography or viewing, Gocke said. With the wildlife comes responsibility in being mindful.
“You’ll make that drive 20 times and you won’t see an animal and then, boom, there it is,” he said.
Some accidents are unavoidable, Gocke said. But slowing down is the biggest prevention tactic people can take.
“Even 5 miles an hour,” Gocke said, “can increase your reaction time.”