Arizona wildlife and transportation officials have teamed to keep motorists and animals safer this winter, with help from some new technology.
During the cold winter months, the large mammals migrate from the mountains to lower elevations, which brings them into dangerous contact with humans, especially motorists.
An adult elk can weigh up to 600 pounds, and when elk meet with motor vehicles, the results are often fatal for both animal and driver.
"You don't want to hit an elk," says Norris Dodd, a wildlife biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "A deer will do damage, but an elk can kill you."
So starting next month, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, with help from Electrobraid Fence, a Canadian electronics company, goes online to test infrared cameras that use military-grade, target-acquisition software to identify the presence of wildlife at roadsides.
When the software detects an animal, the system sends a message to a computer that triggers warning signs. The hope is that the signs, which are solar powered, will give drivers time to slow down.
The proving ground for the new system, called the Animal Roadway Detection System, or RADS, is a short stretch of Arizona State Route 260, near the town of Payson.
State transportation statistics show that there have been more than 200 crashes between elk and vehicles on the busy highway during the past four years.
Protecting wildlife and motorists is nothing new to the Grand Canyon State. The Arizona Department of Transportation recently installed underpasses, bridges and fencing along a 17-mile stretch of State Route 260, which has lowered the number of crashes and animal deaths. But construction can be expensive.
Dodd says the total bill for the entire RADS test system will be about $1 million, while building a single wildlife underpass can top $2 million. So far, the state has constructed seven of 11 planned underpasses.
Special electronic fencing prevents the animals from crossing the road, funneling them instead in the direction of the underpass. The new RADS zone is set up in a similar way, sending the "antlered ungulates" to an isolated area where the cameras can detect their presence.
Dodd says areas along the highway where the fencing has been installed, with funds from a federal enhancement grant, have seen an 83 percent reduction in elk-vehicle crashes during the last year. Speeds in the test area average 80 miles per hour, despite the posted 55 mph speed limit.
"We want highways that animals can cross," he said. "We don't want them to be a barrier, and of course, we want to keep motorists safe first and foremost."
He says wildlife experts nationwide will be eyeing the results of the two-year long research project.
Dodd says he is pretty confident the animals will do what they are supposed to, the real test will be whether or not drivers follow suit.
"We've seen that we can modify elk behavior, now we have to modify driver behavior," he said. "I always joke that my money's on the elk."