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Virginia researchers considering new ways to warn drivers about elk crossings

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Virginia researchers considering new ways to warn drivers about elk crossings

May 10, 2022 | 12:02 am ET
By Graham Moomaw
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Virginia researchers considering new ways to warn drivers about elk crossings
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Elk numbers in Southwest Virginia are growing since their reintroduction. (Meaghan Thomas/ Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources)

A road project being built through a part of Southwest Virginia, where the state’s elk population is growing, has led transportation researchers to consider new measures to avoid traffic collisions with the supersized deer relatives that can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds.

As the state works to complete Buchanan County’s Corridor Q project, which involves a 14.2-mile piece of highway that will eventually run from the town of Grundy to the Kentucky state line near Breaks Interstate Park, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s research arm is conducting a study on strategies to protect both drivers and wildlife in the area. 

Because the road is being built through prime elk country, researchers have also requested $200,000 to study the feasibility of a roadside warning system that could be calibrated to alert motorists to the presence of particularly large animals like elk.

If approved and funded, the elk detection system would likely be used to supplement other measures like wildlife crossings and fencing to help animals safely traverse the area.

“They’re not really used as a standalone measure,” said Bridget Donaldson, a scientist with the Virginia Transportation Research Council. “Because they can’t prevent animals from getting on the road. It’s really just to warn drivers.”

Transportation officials said there have been no documented cases yet of a vehicle colliding with an elk. The proposed elk detection system, they said, would be a proactive way to reduce that possibility in the future.

Once abundant in Appalachia, Virginia’s elk population was wiped out by the late 1800s due to habitat loss and overhunting. After several failed attempts to bring elk herds back to the state, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources successfully reintroduced an elk population starting in 2012. Beginning with 71 adults and 4 calves, Virginia’s elk population has grown to more than 250 animals, according to state officials. 

Locally, the re-emergence of elk is seen as a way to bring more tourists to an economically struggling area, but it’s also sparked backlash from farmers who see the animals as a threat to their pastures and crops.

Virginia’s elk are concentrated in and around Buchanan, officials say, because the reclamation of the area’s former surface mines created exactly the type of grassy habitat elk prefer.

“We think they’ll be sticking around, “said Laura Beth Hale, VDOT’s manager for the Corridor Q project.  “There are enough of the animals now, the herd has grown enough, that you’ll see them if you’re there in the early morning or in the cool times of the day.”

Officials say there are roughly 100 elk in the Corridor Q area, which is creating more of the type of vegetated roadsides elk are also known to gravitate toward.

Virginia researchers considering new ways to warn drivers about elk crossings
As the state works to complete Buchanan County’s Corridor Q project, which involves a 14.2-mile piece of highway that will eventually run from the town of Grundy to the Kentucky state line near Breaks Interstate Park, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s research arm is conducting a study on strategies to protect both drivers and wildlife in the area., particularly as the elk population grows. (VDOT)

“Elk need a mix of open and forested areas for food and cover,” Nelson Lafon, forest wildlife program manager for DWR, said in an email. “As compared to deer, elk prefer more herbaceous vegetation, which is made up of grasses and low growing broad-leaved plants we call ‘forbs.’  In a predominantly forested area like Buchanan County, elk will seek out reclaimed minelands, utility rights-of-way, vegetated roadsides and other clearings. This makes thinking about roadway safety and crossing for elk all that much more important.”

With elk far more common in Western states, Virginia officials have looked to Arizona for examples of how roadside features can reduce collisions with animals. According to study in Arizona, a highway project that combined animal detection technology and fencing led to a significant reduction in both collisions and driver speeds. The study also found increased motorist alertness, as measured by braking distance from the wildlife crosswalk. After tracking 392 groups of elk that approached the highway, the Arizona researchers found the alert system, which used an infrared camera to spot the animals, was “appropriately activated” 96 percent of the time.

The feasibility study Virginia officials are considering would involve looking at what states like Arizona have done to get a better idea of what might work with the more mountainous topography of Buchanan.

If the animal-detection research is funded, the findings will feed into the larger corridor study expected to be completed early next year.

Donaldson, the VDOT research scientist, said an elk-detection system in Virginia could potentially rely on thermal cameras or buried cables that can detect the weight of animals crossing over.

She said early signs suggest those cables are precise enough to only cause highway signs to alert motorists when something elk-sized is near.

“It can distinguish between coyote and deer. Maybe not between deer and elk,” Donaldson said. “But it seems to be pretty effective. Because you don’t want it to go off every time there’s a chipmunk or something.”