When Deputy Brenden McKoy pulled his Washington County Sheriff's patrol car onto the shoulder of U.S. 26 early Thursday near North Plains, he expected the worst. Dispatchers relayed a possible four-car crash involving as many as 15 elk.
McKoy and other deputies arrived at a surreal scene just after 4:25 a.m. One vehicle, a 2004 Chevrolet Avalanche sat crumpled in a heap, smoke from road flares filled the air, and mud and elk blood stretched across the Sunset Highway.
Four Roosevelt elk, the largest species of the massive hooved mammal found in North America, were dead on the south side of the two eastbound travel lanes. Another four or five elk were in varying stages of catastrophic injury on the north side of the road near a grassy median, and another animal had dragged its broken body another 200 feet down the highway east toward Portland.
By the end of the morning, 12 elk were dead, 1,600 pounds of meat was salvaged and donated to food banks and senior centers on the coast or in Washington County.
But the one driver involved had walked away miraculously uninjured.
"There was no way we could save the elk," McKoy said, citing serious leg injuries to most of the animals involved. He and a Forest Grove police officer shot five animals. McKoy, who is not a hunter, used his Bushmaster .223 service rifle.
"It was sad," he said.
Thousands of Oregonians crash into deer, elk or livestock each year on roads across the state.
October and November typically mark the highest months for vehicle collisions, when the elk and deer are migrating from higher elevations to find food during winter months. In November of 2016, 1,160 collisions with wildlife were reported statewide.
According to a state department of transportation collision map, U.S. 26 west is an area of moderate activity for crashes, with 13 to 34 incidents per mile.
But Thursday's crash struck wildlife officials, conservationists and law enforcement officers as unusual, given the number of animals involved and the fact the driver, 36-year-old James Childers III, walked away uninjured.
Sgt. Jeff Proulx, Oregon State Police spokesman, described the incident as "totally odd." Troopers respond to many vehicle collisions statewide, he said, but that many animals crossing a highway at once is unusual.
"You would think normally it would be a semi," Proulx said, when talking about one vehicle striking that many animals. "Elk are big."
Bull Roosevelt elk average anywhere from 700 pounds to more than half a ton. Cows can weigh at least 575 pounds.
Tom Toman is the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's director of private land stewardship for the past 22 years and a former Wyoming wildlife employee for a quarter century prior to that. He said elk herds are not often struck by cars.
In an email, he recalled one incident of a semi-truck killing 19 elk decades ago. Toman said elk could be vulnerable to vehicles when they try to cross highways if there's good food or water on one side but they have to hide and find cover on the other. "All sad situations but fortunately they are not frequent," he said, citing other massive wildlife casualty events involving trains or large trucks.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say they've heard reports recently that a herd of elk had crossed U.S. 26 after traveling from areas around Scappoose. Farmers reported as many as 50 to 70 animals in the herd.
The elk have long been causing issues on private agricultural land, according to the agency, near Scappoose. It's not clear why the animals have moved south toward the highway. Hunting season in the area lasts through March.
In eastern and central Oregon, where vehicles strike elk and deer at a higher clip, the state tries to mitigate conflicts with traffic. Michelle Dennehy, a wildlife spokeswoman, said that's easier because the animals have a well-worn migration pattern.
"In this area, their behavior is really unpredictable," she said.
Childers, the driver involved in the crash, couldn't be reached for this story. Deputy Shannon Wilde said the driver was not cited in the incident.
She spoke with Childers Thursday morning.
"He feels lucky and fortunate to be alive," she said.