Elk Crossing

Game and Fish monitor elk, deer in hopes of making a safer highway

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Norris Dodd wrapped his arm around an elk's neck and pulled it to the ground. He held the animal still long enough to punch a numbered tag into its ear.

Dodd, a wildlife research biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, then closed a collar around the animal's neck and let it go.

It was early Wednesday morning and Dodd was continuing the process of tagging elk and deer as part of a larger project to track the animal's activity. With their findings, the Game and Fish, in partnership with the Arizona Department of Transportation, will put measures in place to prevent accidents caused by elk and deer running onto Highway 260.

Dodd said there is an elk the department has been tracking that has crossed Highway 260 691 times.

He said there are numerous locations on Highway 260 where a car and elk have collided.

"We have some areas where there are six accidents per mile a year," Dodd said.

The collars that Game and Fish are putting on the wildlife will stay on for about two years before dropping off.

The global tracking system in the collars has the capability to be turned on every 90 minutes to monitor the elks that have been tagged or collared

Dodd said the collars of a few years ago worked 68 percent of the time, and now have a 99 percent success.

"If the animal is dead, we will know," he said. Wednesday's capture and collar was the 85th for the department.

"It started out as a small project, and it keeps growing," Dodd said.

Once elk and deer highway crossing patterns have been mapped, ADOT will step in with the second phase of the project -- fencing.

Tom Goodman of ADOT said the agency will install a stretch of electrobraid fencing on both the north and south side of Highway 260 between the westernmost sides of Preacher Canyon Bridge to the overhead power line crossing, approximately 300 feet east of the Well Field Access Road. Dodd said ADOT, due to budget restraints, had to prioritize on the location of the fencing.

At Christopher Creek, where Highway 260 was moved by ADOT in 2004, elk and vehicle collisions decreased by 55 percent, which Dodd believes was the result of a fenced segment.

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Elk along Highway 260 are being tagged with a number and outfitted with a collar that will wear off within two years.

He said putting up fences at certain locations on the highway will drop wildlife/car crashes by 80 percent in those areas.

Goodman said the Christopher Creek project was not a part of the elk-crossing project.

"This is a separate project, but part of the ongoing effort to (protect) elk and wildlife," Goodman said.

"Animals like to cross (the highway). They cross it like it's not there," Dodd said. He said research shows that the highway is a deterrent to only 12 percent of wildlife that would cross.

Goodman said a goal of the fence is to funnel elk and wildlife east of the Preacher Canyon Bridge where trees and brush have been cleared.

Goodman said the roadway animal detection system will be in place approximately 300 feet of the Well Field Access Road where the red infrared cameras will spot wildlife crossing.

This information, when wildlife cross Highway 260, will be relayed to drivers through flashing signs.

Signs will be posted 1,000 feet ahead of the animal. The warning system will incorporate a thermal camera on each side of the highway with computerized graphic image processing software and hardware to identify wildlife when one enters into the 60-foot deep, 100-foot wide detection area.

Goodman said ADOT is still working on adjusting the signs, which so far have been out on the highway for short periods of time.

Sometime in July, wildlife will be funneled to the crossing zone where they will be going over the highway.

Dodd said the solution does not just rest with ADOT and Game and Fish.

The public, he said, has to play a role.

Goodman said the project, expected to be complete by October, was a joint project with the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, ADOT, U.S. Forest Service and the Highway Administration Department.

Dodd said travelers on this stretch of highway are a big part of this project.

"Motorists need to be vigilant and take responsibility," he said.

-- To reach Michael Maresh call 474-5251 or e-mail mmaresh@payson.com.

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