Slow Down In Elk Country In Low Light

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The growing number of vehicle-wildlife collisions in the Rim Country is a losing situation for all involved. In most cases, there are injuries or even fatalities to the occupants of the vehicles, and the wildlife is either killed on impact or must be put down when officials arrive at the scene of the accident.

Numerous measures have been taken to reduce this kind of accident by the state of Arizona and local law enforcement.  Highways have been widened and divided in the Rim Country to make them safer for travel to the New Mexico border or north to Flagstaff. Trees and brush are constantly being cleared on the right-of-way to increase the visibility, which gives a driver a wider view of the road ahead.  Elk and deer warning signs are posted in various locations, which should add to the vigil of being aware that wildlife is in the area.

There is even a 20-mile stretch of highway with an eight-foot fence in the Preacher Canyon area, plus a state-of-the-art motion sensor elk crossing, which should be helping in the reduction of the number of vehicle-wildlife accidents.  In that 20-mile stretch, there are also two underpasses that are considered successful elk crossings. In spite of all of these improvements, collisions still continue to occur, with one of the most dangerous areas being close to home on the four-mile stretch from Payson to Star Valley.

It may surprise you, but since Jan. 1, 2009 there have been more than a dozen accidents in that short stretch of road, despite the numerous improvements being made to mitigate the collisions. Chaparral Pines subdivision has cleared a 75-yard deep path on the right-of-way the total length of its property, which has increased the peripheral visibility in that area.

Motorists need to understand that wildlife is most active in the reduced light period between sundown until one hour after sunrise. Consequently, elk and deer are on the move from their bedding areas to a destination of food and water, which may be on the opposite side of a roadway.  Also, during the summer months, some of the best feed may be in the bar ditches and the medians of a divided highway where the moisture settles and the grasses flourish. All of these components combined make it a mandate for drivers to be more alert.

In the months of September and October, there is another factor, and that is the rut or breeding season for the Arizona elk. A dominant or herd bull aggressively gathers the cow elk population and they are constantly on the move during the reduced light period. When a cow elk crosses a road, there is a very good chance that other cows will follow, and the herd bull will be bringing up the rear. 

I saw an example of this last week at 4:30 a.m. when a dozen cows and a real trophy bull crossed the Beeline well within the city limits of Payson. We did not hit any of the elk, even though they crossed very quickly directly in front the vehicle because we were driving well under the posted speed limit.

Northern Arizona is elk country, and the posted speed limits may not be “reasonable and prudent” for the conditions of limited light from sundown until sun-up. Driving east on Highway 260 during this time frame is dangerous, where top speed may be only 50 mph, which hopefully will give a driver enough braking distance to avoid a collision with one of the many elk in the Rim Country. Be aware that “reasonable and prudent” after dark is much slower than the posted speed limit.

Jerry Daniels, longtime Payson High School baseball coach and driver’s education teacher, offers a few hints of wisdom. “Drive defensively and expect the unexpected at all times. When driving after dark, don’t overdrive your headlights, always be able to brake within the distance of the low beam and the chances of colliding with a deer or elk will be reduced. A passenger in the vehicle can act as a spotter with an extra pair of eyes scanning the roadway.”

The elk of Rim Country are a true success story where thousands of hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts come to the Payson area to enjoy all aspects of this very valuable natural resource.

The impact of our local elk herd is monumental on the economic health of the Payson businesses, as seen on any weekend in the fall and winter. When seven elk are killed in a one-vehicle-wildlife accident, it is a hard lesson to learn. Slow down and drive defensively, this is elk country; the life you save may be your own. 

This weekend, enjoy the Rim Country, God’s creation.

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