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Mortality In The Magic Spot: Cleaning Up Roadkill And Preventing Collisions

'Deer Here' sign at Montana Department of Transportation Composting Facility.
'Deer Here' sign at Montana Department of Transportation Composting Facility.

It’s roadkill season in Montana.

Pete Servel is standing on the shoulder of a busy section of Interstate 90, about ten miles east of Missoula. Clad in an orange helmet and matching neon vest, he carries a shovel in his blue rubber-gloved hands and hunches over a pile of faceless fur and dried blood.

“It might have been a fawn. It’s a little bit tough to tell,” he says.

Servel’s spent ten years maintaining Montana’s roads for the state Department of Transportation. The department has crews out every day, scooping up the carcasses of deer, elk, moose, mountain lions, coyotes, fox, bighorn sheep, raccoons, porcupines, and anything else littered along the highway, even when it’s not always clear exactly what it is they’re cleaning up.

“No, it wasn’t a fawn, because look at the paw on it,” Servel observes.

Servel admits he’s stopped eating venison since he took this job.

Bears often get hit by cars here, especially in the fall when they go into what’s called a state of hyperphagia.

“It just means they need to get a lot of calories so they can get a lot of fat and crawl into their den for four or five months. So they start really traveling,” says Jamie Jonkel, the regional bear manager with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

While MDT’s Carcass Database estimates that 17 black bears died on this section of I-90 between Bonner and Drummond over a five year period, Jonkel says the numbers are much higher. He gets a call every time a bear is run over. And according to Jonkel, so far this year alone, about a dozen black bears have been killed on this stretch of highway.

Last year, the count was pushing 15 here by the end of October. That’s why Jonkel calls this particular area, right around Bonner and Milltown, a “magic spot.”

Jamie Jonkel, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, points to the 'magic spot' by Bonner and Milltown, MT.
Jamie Jonkel, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, points to the 'magic spot' by Bonner and Milltown, MT.

“These bears somehow have to get from point A to point B,” says Jonkel.

Here, three mountain ranges, two rivers, and I-90 meet in a narrow canyon.

“Coming down the ridge is no problem," says Jonkel, "but then when they try to cross a valley, let’s say, the Missoula Valley, to get to the river bottoms, they gotta go past hundreds of houses, and cross all sorts of small roads, climb over fences, climb over Jersey rails, and then try to get across interstates, and just, it's not easy.”

It’s an often lethal obstacle course, a real-life game of Frogger, and it’s only one of six primary movement zones in the area for wildlife.

“And then to boot there's the railroad, and there's the river," says Jonkel. "So it's pretty tough for these wildlife species to maneuver all that terrain. So we get a lot of roadkill in the fall.”

In magic spots like these elsewhere in Montana and around North America, local and tribal governments have partnered with state and federal transportation departments to redesign highways and build new kinds of structures that help reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions. The wildlife crossings on Highway 93 North in the Flathead Indian Reservation and around Banff National Park in Canada are some of the most extensive projects on the continent.

Jonkel would like to see even more of these efforts underway, but knows that they can be prohibitively expensive.

“There’s no way we're going to make any change in one year," says Jonkel. "But I am very optimistic that over the next 20 years, things will start changing here in Montana.”

Jonkel says he’ll continue to work with the the state transportation department and non-governmental organizations to reduce roadkill and car accidents.

“Eventually, I'm hoping it just kicks into gear that when you re-structure new highway systems, repair new bridges, you start thinking about wildlife corridors and wildlife movement,” says Jonkel.

Until that happens, Jonkel expects to see continued high numbers of wildlife collisions and mortality in this region. And road maintenance guys like Pete Servel will stay on roadkill detail, whisking the remains away so more wild animals aren’t lured over to snack on the kill, right next to speeding cars.

Pete Servel loads up a deer carcass.
Pete Servel loads up a deer carcass.

“We’re just gonna shovel this one up, get all the parts and pieces of it," says Servel. "Well, we’ll come back for that part.”

After they shovel the carcasses up off the roads, MDT crews bring them to their carcass composting facility right at the Y-intersection west of Missoula. Servel backs his rig up to a brownish pile, a sign says 'Deer Here,' and releases his half-full dump truck load.

Virtually all roadkill collected in the Missoula area lands in one of these six concrete bins, save those that are salvaged for food with a special permit. After the animals decompose, the piles are consolidated into one huge windrow, which upon closer inspection, has bits of vertebrae, antler and the occasional hoof laced on top.

Servel likens the whole process to a bowl of frosted flakes.

“But they’re all broken down and you can almost turn it into a powder," says Servel. "And that’s basically what we’re doing here, with these animals, is mixing them with some compost and making it so that they return back, so to speak, with the earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

The finished compost stays on site, and the facility won’t be running out of animal inputs any time soon.

For now, both Servel and Fish, Wildlife and Parks Biologist Jamie Jonkel advise drivers heading down I-90 to slow down, stay alert, and expect that a bear or deer or mountain lion could run out at any moment.

“It seems like most people in this day and age aren't really paying attention to the natural world around them," Jonkel says. "And that's the real world.”

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