piping plover Roadkill – we see it nearly every day: raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, frogs, and perhaps less frequently, deer, dogs, and cats. Most of the time, the poor creatures are already dead. Sometimes, rescues are possible, and even more rarely, survival and rehabilitation occurs. Over my thirty-plus years of driving, I have had the occasion to rescue two robins who had been hit by cars. I’ve also had the unfortunate experience of having hit and killed a raccoon, a chipmunk, and a bird (type unknown). The number of dead animals I see on any given day out on the roadways and highways I try not to think about.

After being particularly disturbed upon seeing an adult opossum dead today, I decided to look into this subject, which I had been intending to do for a while. As it turns out, accurate statistics (at least in the U.S.) are difficult to come by. Each state wildlife agency keeps its own statistics. Insurance companies keep their own statistics on reported collisions and damages, usually involving larger animals, such as deer and moose. Car enthusiasts as well as those concerned about disappearing endangered species both keep tabs as best they can. A few university researchers are attempting to collect data from the public. But information involving animals killed by motor vehicles is mostly available through a patchwork of surveys, insurance statistics, and observations of state wildlife officials.

Here is some of what we know. There are about four million miles of roads in the U.S., of which more than half is paved . There are 240 million cars and trucks registered in the U.S. And the estimated miles logged in the course of a year? three trillion.

That’s a lot of opportunities for death and injury causing collisions to occur. The best estimate I have come across as to how many animals we lose is approximately four hundred million vertebrate animals on U.S. roads every year. That of course, does not count the untold number of insects, such as moths and butterflies. And as others have pointed out, this figure only includes the counted and seen dead – it does not estimate how many collisions occur leaving an animal to die later alone in the woods, the total of which could be several times more than what we actually see and count. So basically, every day on US roads, at least one million vertebrate animals (and unknown numbers of invertebrates) lose their lives as a result of motor vehicles – a direct result of motor vehicles. If we also consider the losses due to dwindling habitat and pollution of habitat by motor vehicle exhaust as well as paving dust, pollution of nearby waterways, and disruption of feeding and breeding behavior due to the impact of major road construction, the numbers only climb higher.

Not only is this devastating to those who lose beloved companions in this manner, but there are also real concerns about the potential impact on wildlife populations, especially endangered or threatened species. There are over 1300 threatened or endangered animal species in the U.S. , including twenty two species of butterfly. While many of these species exist far away from developed areas, not all do, and individuals in search of food or mates may wander far enough away from their territory to become another statistic.

So what can we do besides feel a twinge every time we see a roadkill victim? There is much we can do collectively, if the will is there. The ecological toll of motor vehicle collisions on wildlife needs to be assessed and quantified in a more accessible fashion, which means it needs to be prioritized and funds need to be allocated for such an assessment. The effects of commandeering major swaths of land to be paved needs to be weighed heavily against the potential benefit of having yet another road in town which may not be very far from other existing roads. Public transportation needs to be given more attention (and yes, more funding). Public transportation infrastructure in the U.S. is dismally far behind many other industrialized nations. Such a network of transportation possibilities could cut down drastically on the number of vehicles on the roadways. Speed limits should not continue to be raised in response to public demand, and existing speed limits need to be enforced with fines meant to seriously discourage further infractions. Purchasing locally grown or manufactured goods (becoming increasingly more difficult) when possible can reduce the number of truck miles driven. Whistles for deer that are attached to vehicles and are quite inexpensive are available, but their effectiveness continues to be debated. Such whistles and other warning devices attached to vehicles could be improved upon and made more widely available to motorists (such as offering one when registering a vehicle, for example). And perhaps most importantly, the reality about the potential long term effects of building and driving more miles on more roadways needs to be told more widely and more emphatically to the driving public.

Roadkill is one of the unfortunate side effects of living in a fast-paced, consumer based, human centric society. There are things that we can do, both individually and collectively, to reduce the number of fatalities and the impacts on wildlife populations. But people need to have the information and the will to make such changes.

photo: Piping plover (endangered), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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