Sonoma Valley a ‘hotspot’ for roadkill
A dead buck spotted along Highway 12 in the Springs last week was a reminder to motorists that it is “rut” season for deer, and males are migrating down from the hillsides in droves in search of willing female companionship.
But with the deer’s natural habitat heavily peopled and paved, some of those visitors find that mission impossible.
Highway 12, where it winds through the Valley especially, is a dangerous gauntlet for animals, situated as it is in a critical wildlife corridor. The roadway has been identified as a “hotspot” by the U.C. Davis Road Ecology Center, which has used volunteer observers to identify “wildlife/vehicle conflict zones” and track incidents within them since 2009.
Countywide, according to a joint study organized by Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol, there are about 4,000 motor vehicle accidents reported each year involving wildlife and livestock. Statewide, an estimated 20,000 wild animals are killed by cars and trucks annually, and the Bay Area‘s roads are the deadliest.
Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals large and small have all met their end on Sonoma’s roads, driven in larger numbers in recent years by drought and the quest for fresh water. Roadways are also commonly dense with vegetation attractive to herbivores, the plants supercharged by rain runoff and the nitrogen in exhaust.
When a vehicle makes accidental contact with an animal, motorists are advised to move to the side of the road and stay away from the injured animal. It is wise to document the incident and contact the insurance carrier, and unwise to assume the car remains safe to drive. A police report is not mandated following collision with wild animals, but dogs, goats, horses, cattle, donkeys, mules, sheep and pigs are protected by the Road Traffic Act of 1988, requiring that motorists report collisions to police.
Most commonly though, it is deer that are hit, comprising 88 percent of motor vehicle wildlife accidents, according to the Road Ecology Center.
October is National Animal Safety and Prevention month, and the highest number of roadside deer fatalities occur in November.
Deer are most mobile in the early morning and at dusk, and with more photoreceptors in their eyes to facilitate night vision, often freeze when confronted with motor vehicle headlights. To be a “deer in the headlights:” is to be frozen in fear, so surprised as to be rendered immobile.
When a deer is killed by a car in Sonoma, motorists have several options for handling the carcass.
One, the animal can be salvaged for food, thanks to Senate Bill 395, passed in September, which allows drivers to apply for a permit in order to legally harvest the meat. The free salvage permit, which must be executed within 24 hours, is expected by the bill’s authors to allow “hundreds of thousands of pounds of healthy meat” to be used to “feed those in need,” according to the language in SB-395. Admittedly, it is not an option for the squeamish, but perhaps a boon for the Field and Stream set.
Option two might likewise rattle the soft-hearted, but allows for practical dispensation with collateral scientific benefits. Sonoma’s “Living with Lions” project will collect roadside deer to use as bait in its continuing mountain lion conservation efforts. The meat is placed where lion activity is spotted, generally on private lands where domestic animals have disappeared or been killed.
“We are most interested in freshly killed sub-adult or adult deer. We cannot use fawns as they don’t present enough bait for two nights worth of feeding by a lion,” said Living with Lions founder Quinton Martins in an email to the Index-Tribune. But Living with Lions can’t possibly handle all the deer killed on Sonoma roadways.
“Sometimes we can’t make it because our freezers are full or do not have anyone around to get the carcass,” added Martins.
The default solution then, for motorists who collide with and kill a deer or other wild animal, is Sonoma County Animal Services and the California Highway Patrol. The county outsources its roadside pickup to Recology Sonoma Marin and, in the case of emergency, will collect a dead animal after business hours. But, generally, retrieval is limited to the hours between 8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. The Highway Patrol, on the other hand, never sleeps, and in collaboration with Caltrans, will dispatch personnel as needed to keep roadways clear.
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