The secret of roadkill: How climate change is increasing killer collisions

Driving along the highway can be a therapeutic experience. For some, singing along to loud music, rolling the windows down so the wind can fill the space and speeding along open stretches of road are just what it takes to clear a busy mind. But for Missouri’s wildlife, the road provides a refuge with access to food and shelter. But, when the paths of humans and wildlife intersect, the latter is often left worse for wear. When animals encounter highways, they are often met by the onslaught of vehicles, leaving animals dangerously susceptible to being hit and left on the side of the road to deteriorate. 

Climate change is affecting temperatures and weather patterns across the Midwest. In turn, this is having an impact on the habits of the state’s native wildlife. Animals depend on the consistency of having a stable climate, habitat and access to food and water. Most animals depend on climatic cues to tell them when they should migrate, mate and hibernate. Climate change confuses these signals and forces animals like skunks, deer and coyotes to adapt their life cycles. Floods and droughts alter and displace their water sources, causing dehydration. The increase in warmer temperatures forces animals out of hibernation earlier, and when they go looking to fill their bellies, they find that food sources like plants and insects have yet to arrive. Droughts and urban development threaten the habitats of local wildlife, forcing them into smaller areas closer to people where they’re more likely to conflict.

All of these things contribute to animals moving closer to humans for food and to rebuild their habitats. This congestion forces animals closer to roads where they’re in imminent danger of getting struck by oncoming traffic.

As of 16 years ago, there was four million miles of road in the United States. That number has only increased in recent years. There was roughly one million animals run over daily, at a rate of 11.5 ever seconds. Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps
A report by the Federal Highway Administration found that car collisions are one of the major threats to 21 federally threatened or endangered animal species in the United States. These deaths severely impact the long term survival of these animals. Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps
In Brazil, the most biodiverse country, an estimated 10 million animals are killed by cars every year. From studies in Brazil that are applicable to the rest of the world, it is thought that roadkill can be predicted based on the behavior of animals, their size and ecological preferences. Animals with a more diverse diet and can have multiple different habitats are more at risk of crossing roads, like scavenging mammals. Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps
The most common time for deer-vehicle collisions is October and November. According to the Federal Highway Administration, most wildlife-vehicle collisions involve deer, occurring as much as  90% of the time in some states. Deer like to venture across roads to get to more diverse landscapes and eat the vegetation along some highways, which makes them susceptible to being struck by speeding vehicles. Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps
Between July 2019 and 2020, there were over 1.9 million animal collision insurance claims. All kinds of animals are being forced to be closer to the roads including raccoons, coyotes, deer, squirrels and even cats that are escaping becoming prey for animals desperate for food. Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps
Animals being closer to the roads does not only impact their way of life, but also the humans driving the cars. The average cost of car damage after hitting a deer is estimated to be $1,840. It fluctuates depending on the size of the animal and the approaching speed but either way, there is price for drivers too, even if it isn’t comparable to a life. Kit Wiberg/Missouri Information Corps

Kit Wiberg graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism – photojournalism.

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