Drought conditions push deer toward Sierra, increasing risk of collisions with drivers

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(KTXL) — Herds of deer are on the move right now, putting them on a collision course with travelers in the Sierra. 

Some UC Davis researchers are looking at the issue very closely. 

“There’s a lot of habitat for them there, room for them to move because they migrate up,” said  Dr. Fraser Shilling. “And a lot of young-of-year, juveniles, young deer that have been born recently that don’t have as much experience, and they’re also moving with the herd up into the higher elevations.”

Shilling is a UC Davis researcher and co-director The Road Ecology Center. 

“And a lot of our research and our students’ research is about how roads and traffic are impacting nature and especially wildlife,” Shilling said. 

They collect data about where cars are coming into contact with wildlife. And the stretch of highway where the Foothills meet the west slope of the Sierra is a hotspot. 

Shilling says that might be especially true this year because drought conditions in the lower elevations are impacting the plants deer like to eat. 

“And that means the deer are going to be moving around more to try to find the richer food, the wetter food let’s say. And that will bring them in conflict with highways,” Shilling said. 

Placerville auto body shops tell FOX40 they are keeping busy fixing cars damaged by deer. Hangtown Body Shop says one car hit a deer directly, and a truck on the right crashed into a rock trying to avoid a deer.

Research by The Road Ecology Center has also revealed some fascinating findings about why deer might seem comfortable around cars. 

“Deer actually hang out near roads sometimes to avoid their predators. So, their predators are more sensitive to the noise and the glare from traffic, whereas the deer are less sensitive,” Shilling said. “It actually means that they’re more likely to get hit on the roads because we don’t fence roads often in California. We don’t give them wildlife crossing structures. So they’re more likely to get hit.”

A state-funded wildlife tunnel under U.S. 50 in Placerville has been a success. 

“We had trail cameras pointed at the tunnel the hundreds and hundreds of wildlife crossings through there for a year,” Shilling said. “Thousands per year really. And the number of collisions we avoided having happen definitely paid for that.”

Shilling would like to see more investment in wildfire tunnels and overcrossings. He also supports a Senate bill that would establish a statewide system to collect better data about vehicle collisions with wildlife. 

“So, if we find out where the wildlife-vehicle collisions are occurring, then we can try to prevent them in the future,” Shilling said. 

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