ADOT, AZGFD high-tech program keeps elk, drivers safe

- For several years now, the Arizona Department of Transportation has been working closely with the Arizona Game and Fish Department to reduce elk vs. vehicle collisions.

As many people know, an elk colliding with a vehicle can be a deadly mix. And one of the most elk-hazardous drives in the state is along Arizona 260 between Payson and Heber.

If you drive east of town on State Route 260 near Payson, you'll see elk crossing signs. Several years ago, ADOT installed these high-tech warning signs that use cameras to detect wildlife near the road. If an animal was detected, lights would flash and a message board would tell drivers an elk was near the roadway.

Aside from those high tech warning signs, ADOT has also installed several fences and gates to help keep those animals in their natural habitat and off the roadways.

"It's kind of an entire system that functions as one unit. We have 17 underpasses with fencing in between each one of the underpasses that kind of guide the elk and other wildlife under the highway safely so it doesn't endanger the driver and it keeps the elk safe too," explained ADOT's Ryan Harding.

Harding says these underpasses act as a funneling system for the animals. They resemble their natural habitat and are easy for the animals to get through.

"When you're driving along the highway, you don't see it, but down below all the elk are being guided under the highway safely. So you don't even run into them," he said.

The underpasses, along with the warning signs, have reduced elk vs. vehicle collisions by about 90 percent.

"Prior to 2007, we were having about 12 accidents per year with elk and after 2007, we have had approximately three accidents with elk," said AZGFD biologist Jeff Gagnon.

Gagnon says this stretch of roadway was chosen because of the amount of elk in the area.

Elk, which can weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds, cause the most damage when colliding with a vehicle, even resulting in death. Gagnon says there's about 30,000 to 35,000 elk in the state and keeping as many off the roadway is key.

"When we first started monitoring the underpasses, we monitored five of them for approximately four years each and we had about 10,000 elk through those underpasses. The elk learn that over time and they prefer to use that," said Gagnon.

The high-tech crossings were maintained by an outside company, but ADOT is currently looking for a more cost-effective way to maintain the technology.

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