Friday, December 14, 2012

Students strive to save elk

‘Keep them alive on 75,’ third-graders urge

Express Staff Writer

Elk dart across state Highway 75 through traffic north of Hailey earlier this year. Third-grade students at Hailey Elementary School are urging drivers to slow down and look for elk when driving in wildlife crossing areas. Photo by Roland Lane

Most long-term residents and visitors of the Wood River Valley are familiar with “the gauntlet”—the stretch of state Highway 75 between Hailey and Ketchum that is frequently the scene of accidents between cars and elk.

The Blaine County Sheriff’s Office typically investigates two to three accidents involving deer, moose or elk in one week in the fall. Seven students at Wood River High School determined that there were 33 vehicle accidents involving those animals from Oct. 24, 2011, to Oct. 15, 2012.

Third-grade students at Hailey Elementary School are working hard to try to make a dent in that number.

Teacher Wanda Baxter said 90 third-grade students and five teachers have launched a project called Harrowing Highways, which is dedicated to making drivers more aware of wildlife on the road and the need to drive slower in wildlife crossing areas.

Baxter said the project started when the applied physics class from Wood River High School came to talk to the third-grade classes about a report they had just completed about the need to drive more slowly at night. Seven students said that driving 55 mph at night on Highway 75 is too fast to stop if a deer or elk appears on the highway.

Baxter said her students were impressed by that, and decided to try to come up with a solution to prevent wildlife accidents.

“Every student has a story to tell about how they themselves or someone they know has had a traumatic experience while driving on Highway 75,” she said.

The students brainstormed solutions for reducing accidents, such as putting up lighted warning signs or reducing the speed limit at night. They eventually decided to try and raise money to put up wooden silhouettes of elk and deer alongside the highway, in the hope of having drivers see the figures, slow down and watch for wildlife crossing the road.

Baxter said the students held a bake sale fundraiser to raise money to print bumper stickers emblazoned with the slogans: “Keep them alive on 75” and “Be aware, drive with care.”

Students are selling the stickers for $3 each, in the hope of raising enough money to build the wooden figures. Devon Peterson, a third-grade dual immersion student at Hailey Elementary, said the bumper stickers raise awareness, but are a means to an end.

“We’re trying to make the bumper stickers and sell them so we can make the sculptures that look like real elk and put them on Highway 75,” she said. “Then, [drivers] will be like, ‘Oh, I need to slow down,’ because they see that there is an elk there, but it’s not a real elk.”

Idaho Fish and Game spokesman Kelton Hatch said wildlife collisions are a serious problem in the Wood River Valley.

“You have a major herd of elk there, and they just cross back and forth and it’s really an issue,” Hatch said. “It’s one of the scary things of living with wildlife.”

Blaine County Sheriff Gene Ramsey said he supports reducing wildlife collisions and that the Sheriff’s Office is researching a few options. But, Ramsey said, he’s not sure the silhouettes would be a good long-term solution.

“They would be effective for a little while,” he said. “It might alert people who don’t drive it every day, but as we found with the flashing signboards, people who drive the highway every day stop paying attention.”

Baxter said the students would continue selling bumper stickers through January. After Christmas, they will begin writing letters to the Idaho Transportation Department and private landowners along the highway, requesting permission to put up the wooden animals.

Baxter said that if the project isn’t approved, the money would simply go toward another solution.

“We’ll just explore another way,” she said. “If we get completely shut down, we’ll try something else.”

Kate Wutz:

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