All the necessary ingredients were in place to create the perfect — more accurately, perfectly horrific — vehicular crash.
It was a dark winter night, and two elk were crossing N.M. 68 south of Taos, probably to forage for food. That’s when Garrett VeneKlasen spotted the animals while driving in his aging Lexus.
VeneKlasen had just enough time to veer out of the line of the mother elk, but his vehicle sideswiped an approximately 250-pound calf. The collision killed the smaller elk and caused “significant” damage to the vehicle.
The driver of a truck traveling behind VeneKlasen didn’t have enough time to avoid the dead elk and raced over its body, nearly creating another crash.
Neither driver was hurt, but VeneKlasen, shaken, recalled it as a “pretty scary” incident that got his heart racing.
“Had I been another 12 inches over, that elk would have come over my hood and into my windshield and probably killed me,” said VeneKlasen, the northern conservation director for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
Such potentially deadly situations are increasingly problematic as wildlife migrate farther to find food, water or a mate or escape a once-comfortable habitat devastated by wildfire. Officials say vehicular crashes involving animals — encounters that can lead to destruction, death and thousands of dollars in damages — are prompting renewed efforts to create corridors of safety for both man and beast.
Lawmakers, public safety and wildlife advocates are placing a lot of faith — and looking to place a lot of money — into implementing the state’s Wildlife Corridors Act, which was passed and signed into law in 2019 but still needs hundreds of millions of dollars to come to fruition.
The numbers are sobering: According to a June 2022 action plan compiled by the state Department of Transportation and Department of Game and Fish, between 2002 and 2018 there were 15,486 reported incidents on New Mexico’s roadways involving six large species, including deer, elk and black bears. Deer made up for over 11,000 of those incidents.
Sometimes, the victims aren’t just the animals. In late August, a state Department of Transportation official told lawmakers on the interim Transportation, Public Works and Capital Improvements Committee there have been at least three human fatalities, the most recent in 2020, from such crashes in New Mexico.
U.S. Department of Transportation statistics say more than 200 people died in animal-related vehicular collisions in the country in 2020, with the vast majority occurring between June and September.
The financial price for such crashes: $8 million, including the cost of fixing property damage, according to the federal report.
Advocates say mere signs along the highway warning motorists of deer crossings and the presence of other animals may not be enough to stem the tide of the crashes.
The Wildlife Corridors Act requires state agencies to analyze different data points — including crashes involving wildlife — to prioritize areas where wildlife passageways, including overpasses, underpasses and game fencing should be built to protect both humans and animals.
The recent state report says the top five wildlife-vehicle crash hotspots are Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe, plus the town of Cuba in Sandoval County and the Southern New Mexico communities of Bent, Ruidoso and Silver City.
It also prioritizes six wildlife corridors recommended for construction projects, including in the Chama area, an area south of Raton and in roadways in the Sandia and Jemez mountain ranges.
Addressing corridor needs in those five top crash areas will be costly — about $165 million, according to current estimates.
These projects “are not cheap,” acknowledged Bryan Bird, the southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit that works to protect native plants and animals in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Though the Legislature already committed $2 million to fund state agency efforts to create an action plan and report, that money will not go much further, he said.
But Bird added a bipartisan infrastructure package passed by Congress includes $350 million to construct wildlife road crossings, and New Mexico can apply for matching grant funds to move forward with corridor projects.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who cosponsored the Wildlife Corridors Act, said last week she hopes to secure $50 million in non-recurring funding in the 2023 legislative session to begin work on some of the priority projects and apply for the matching federal funds.
“We need to get our grant writers together and find out how we can access these funds,” Stewart said. “It’s important we try to protect our animal diversity and try to do things smarter; try to add some of these overpasses and underpasses and fencing.”
Will such efforts pay off? Nevada has reported success with an animal underpass and overpass program first initiated in 2010. Nova Simpson, a biological supervisor with the Nevada Department of Transportation’s environmental division, said the state has recorded about 8,000 mule deer annually using those corridors to safely cross roads.
“That’s 8,000 animals not on the road and in front of motorists,” she said.
She said game fencing, which can range in height from just a couple of feet for desert tortoises to eight feet for deer, elk and bighorn sheep, work to herd those animals toward the safer pathways.
“Most animals can adapt to either under or overpasses,” she said.
She said another benefit to the animal corridors is their ability to reduce the mortality rate of endangered species or those whose population is already at risk, such as the desert tortoise.
Other states, primarily in the West, have created similar wildlife corridors, including Arizona and Colorado. In California, millions are being raised to build a crossing for U.S. 101 on the western side of Los Angeles County, which will allow mountain lions to easily cross eight lanes of traffic, expanding their habitat.
New Mexico has already begun creating two wildlife underpass corridors near Cuba and Raton.
Those expansions are necessary, wildlife advocates say, to sustain these populations and give animals a chance to adapt to development. Climate change, drought and wildfires also are driving the migration patterns.
“We are seeing more and more of these accidents because their [animal] habitats were compromised and development is moving into areas they normally use,” VeneKlassen said. “It’s a huge public safety issue, but you can’t put a value on wildlife. It’s economically important, important from a consumptive level — we eat elk. It’s an important food source for families.”
VaneKlassen thinks New Mexico is headed in the right direction with the Wildlife Corridors Act but said it needs to move faster and invest more money into infrastructure to make such safe passages viable.
“Fifty million is a good start,’ he said. “But we need to commit $100 million to this tomorrow. There’s capital outlay money, federal money, all sorts of different money to apply to this. I want this to be on the radar of [congressional] senators, representatives as well as all state legislators. We need to ramp this up.
“The clock is ticking and lives are hanging in the balance — obviously human lives but also very valuable wildlife.”