It’s the height of the roadkill season. It’s impossible for animals to avoid the 3,732 miles of roads crisscrossing Connecticut, and the month of June is an especially tough time for them.
Turtles are still crossing roads trying to find places to lay their eggs. Yearling deer—kicked out of the family by the mothers—are wandering around at dawn and dusk trying to find new ranges. Opossums and coyotes are skulking around after dark. Young birds are learning to fly and their parents are swooping low to find food. Crows are eating the dead squirrels and opossums. Even a bear will wander over the double yellow lines looking for food.
In the 90 or so years roads have dominated the local landscape, animals have not evolved to understand the cues that might save them on roads. Roadkill is such a routine problem for state agencies and town police departments that these agencies rarely try to count the dead.
High body count
But a few special tallies and studies within the last decade estimated astonishing roadkill numbers, along with other statistics:
- Cars and trucks probably kill about 18,000 deer each year. That number is an estimate based on a roadkill survey in 2004, adding numbers reported to the state Department of Transportation, state wildlife personnel, and local police departments.
- Thousands of opossums and hundreds of raccoons, fox, mink, beaver, skunks, and other mammals probably die on roads each year. That number is an estimate by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
- Nearly all snakes that venture into roads die on roads, biologists have found. Their instinct is to freeze when danger—vehicles—approach. Some snakes take a full minute to start moving again.
- Hundreds of road-injured birds end up in rehabilitators’ hands each year, the DEP has reported.
Howard Kilpatrick, a state deer biologist, knows the most about deer numbers. He said that in the last decade, the state population of deer appears to be declining after 30 years of increases. “We also noticed a similar trend with roadkill,” he said. “They were going up and up and up, they peaked in 2000, and since 2000 they’ve been declining.”
This year Kilpatrick and other state personnel are estimating road traffic volumes. They have found that car and truck numbers are about the same as they were 10 years ago, “suggesting that the change [in roadkill estimates] is truly due to a decrease in deer population rather than a decreasing trend in motor vehicle volume.”
The state Department of Environmental Protection’s wildlife division is not counting every roadkilled deer in the state anymore, Kilpatrick said, because it takes so much time. They’re focusing on Fairfield County, where deer-road conflicts are higher, and the rural Northwest Corner, where deer population declines continue for a variety of reasons, apparently.
The human toll
In all areas, roadkill is just reality. And for some species like deer, which are nuisances in many areas, it’s a fact that roads actually act as a predator in absence of natural predators (we haven’t had wolves in a very long time). Roads kill more deer than hunters do.
Animals often are not the only victims, however. The state DOT reported 1,893 animal-related car accidents in 2008 (the most recent year for which data is available). That was out of more than 100,000 yearly car and truck accidents. Of those, one included a human fatality. Twelve accidents caused serious injuries, and 113 had lesser injuries from those animal crashes.
What to do with the bodies
Police officers, transportation workers and state biologists often bury dead animals nearby. Some towns send them to be incinerated with trash. The state has come up with some more unique solutions to dealing with dead deer.
A state law allows people to take roadkilled deer they report to authorities, so an ordinary road trip might bring in some free venison stew.
They also can be composted. Most deer killed on roads begin to rot quickly. In 2009, the state Department of Transportation began an experimental compost pile for dead deer. Workers layer deer carcasses with woodchips (made from road trimmings) and gravel behind the DOT’s garage in the Tylerville section of Haddam.
“It’s basically a pilot to see how effective this is and if the product, the end product, is a useable product for us,” said DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick. “At the end stage, when all of the decomposition has taken place, in theory you’re going to be left with a fertile and essentially sterile material,” he said.
If you find roadkill, call either your local police department or, if it’s on a state road, the state Department of Transportation. (For state roads, click here. Fill out the box and choose from a drop-down menu “Report a dead animal on the roadway.”)
“It’s a routine maintenance function so we get around to it in the daily course of our maintenance activities,” Nursick said.