Every year hundreds of motorists strike elk in the Rim Country, the majority on Highway 260, where elk migrate to get food and mate.
In Star Valley alone, 71 percent of vehicle accidents involve an elk.
No one agency can pinpoint how many elk-vehicle collisions occur in a year, other than to say they are quite frequent.
On Tuesday, a motorist driving a Ford Bronco struck a calf elk a mile from Houston Mesa Road around 7 p.m.
While the driver was uninjured and the truck suffered minimal damage, the calf was killed.
In most elk versus vehicle collisions, the elk is killed instantly.
However, in July, a motorcyclist was killed and his passenger severely injured after striking a large elk just outside of Star Star Valley.
Kenneth Shelton, 59, was driving west on Highway 260 near The Knolls subdivision turn off when an elk darted in front of him, colliding with his bike and sending it skidding down the roadway 160 feet before coming to a stop.
Shelton, who was not wearing a helmet, died, and his passenger, Julie Jenkins, 42, suffered head injuries and facial fractures. Jenkins, who was also not wearing a helmet, underwent several facial surgeries.
In Star Valley, nearly every other week, a motorist strikes an elk along the roadway.
Adam Shepherd, undersheriff with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, said 71 percent of accidents in Star Valley involve an elk.
“You don’t have an accident problem, you have an elk problem,” Shepherd said to the Star Valley Town Council Tuesday night.
From July 2 through Oct. 21, 14 elk were hit in Star Valley’s town limits, the majority near milepost 258, which is eight miles east of Payson.
While the town can post extra signs to warn motorists of elk crossing, motorists should slow down and be extra cautious when traveling after dark. Mondays and Tuesdays are also frequent times when elk cross.
According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, most collisions occur on Monday and Tuesday when traffic is lightest, because elk avoid crossing on the weekends when traffic is high. Although elk wait, they still cannot avoid being hit.
Additionally, nearly 30 percent of all elk collisions occurred within an hour of sunset or sunrise along Highway 260, and 49 percent occurred during fall when elk breed and migrate for the winter.
With such a high number of elk-vehicle collisions occurring every year and traffic volumes increasing, the Arizona Department of Transportation began widening Highway 260 from a two-lane to a four-lane divided highway in 2000 to increase safety and improve traffic flow.
Already, three sections of roadway from Star Valley to Heber were widened.
“This project is one of the most comprehensive efforts in North America to make a highway friendly to the passage of wildlife,” according to the Game and Fish Web site.
“When complete, 11 sets of large, bridged underpasses will facilitate wildlife passage under the highway. Six sets of large bridges over streams will also serve as wildlife passage structures.”
In late October, ADOT crews began widening and adding three new bridges to 4.5 miles from Little Green Valley to Thompson Draw. Construction is expected to run through 2010.
In the meantime, elk continue to use the “crosswalk” just outside of Star Valley’s town limits.
If you have driven past Star Valley, you probably noticed large warning signs set up at opposite ends of a fenced area.
Game and Fish installed a crosswalk in December 2006 to direct elk through a passage.
Thermal, infrared cameras detect wildlife in the area and send signals to the warning signs at opposite ends of the road, alerting motorists to slow down.
Two years after the crosswalk was installed, elk collisions decreased by 96 percent.
With the success of the first-ever wildlife crosswalk, more may be installed in the future.
Michelle Keegan, office assistant with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, said she frequently sees elk on Highway 87 when she drives to work in the morning from Pine.
Although she has never hit one, she has had a few close calls.
“You really have to be careful,” she said.