In the 1960s widening U.S. Highway 27 just north of Tallahassee cut Florida's Lake Jackson into two sections. When water levels fell too low in either part, thousands of turtles, frogs, snakes and alligators would hit the road to head for the other side—where cars and trucks often hit the animals. In February of 2000 Matt Aresco, then a PhD student at The Florida State University in Tallahassee, drove through and was stunned at the sight of dozens of crushed turtles. For the next five weeks he patrolled the road between the lakes, once counting 343 dead turtles in 10 days. "It was so heartbreaking to see dozens of turtles, animals that could be 50 or 60 years old, smashed before they make it two feet onto the road," he says.
Using photos he snapped of the carnage, Aresco convinced the state transportation department to provide nylon fencing, which he set up that April along 1,200 meters on either side of the highway. Between April and August, his makeshift fence intercepted nearly 5,000 turtles that otherwise may have ended up as roadkill.
Across the U.S. vehicles hit an estimated one million to two million animals every year, the equivalent of a collision every 26 seconds, according to insurance industry records. But official numbers of animal–vehicle crashes include only reported collisions, which generally means those with large animals and that result in disabled vehicles, says Jon Beckmann, a biologist with the New York City–based Wildlife Conservation Society. "If you run over a raccoon or skunk, those are rarely reported. When you include those smaller animals, the numbers are probably well up in the millions more."
The animal generally comes out on the losing end of the encounter. Aresco calculated that in 2001 a turtle attempting to cross U.S. 27 had a 2 percent chance of surviving. He even witnessed a turtle shot through the air like a hockey puck after being struck, and says there are documented cases of these shelled projectiles going through windshields. And, according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), death by car represents a serious threat to 21 endangered or threatened species, including Key deer, bighorn sheep, ocelot, red wolves, desert tortoises, American crocodiles and Florida panthers. Nine panthers were killed by vehicles in 2011, 16 in 2012 and five as of April 26 this year, says Darrell Land, leader of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's panther team. Those numbers represent significant losses for a population of only 100 to 160 animals that continues to lose habitat to development.
Image: Courtesy of Matthew J. Aresco.
Vehicles, according to Beckmann, Aresco and other scientists, may well be one of the biggest threats to U.S. wildlife populations. According to the Insurance Information Institute, collisions between 2008 and 2010 were more than 20 percent higher than the previous five years. And people in the vehicles suffer consequences, too. More than 90 percent of collisions with deer and nearly 100 percent of those with larger elk and moose cause damage to the car or truck involved, the FHA reports. The Insurance Information Institute estimates that collisions with deer alone cause about 200 human fatalities each year, plus tens of thousands of injuries and $3.6 billion in vehicle damage. The number of deer-related claims paid out by just one insurance firm—State Farm—increased nearly 8 percent while all other claims declined by more than 8 percent. And bad things can happen even when there's no actual collision: Drivers swerving to avoid an animal can run into each other, or off the road. Solutions do exist, although those fighting to protect animals from death by vehicle have found that putting them into practice often proves challenging.