Deer, cars make for bad mix in November
Driving down Medford's Foothill Road on Wednesday evening, Paula Waldrop barely saw what hit her.
"It was a big buck with a nice rack but by the time I saw it, it was too late," she says.
The blacktailed deer ran into the left front quarter-panel of her new Jetta, smashing a headlight and grill before rolling over the hood and disappearing in the brush.
"It was very scary," Waldrop says. "I had the choice of taking the ditch, hit the deer or let the deer hit me. Very scary."
Oregon is in the midst of yet another bumper crop of wildlife-related vehicle accidents that make each November the worst month for hitting deer, elk and other animals on area roads.
Fall migration of blacktailed deer and sex-crazed bucks chasing does during the height of their mating season conspire to create the statistically highest chance motorists have for hitting a deer.
And nowhere is it more prevalent than in southwestern Oregon, home to more than one-third of last year's 1,256 reported cases of vehicles striking big-game animals such as deer, elk and bears.
"And those are only the ones we know about," says Shelley Snow, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, which attempts to track roadkill incidents. "There are hundreds, if not thousands, more that actually don't get reported."
Many of those reported sound a lot like Robin Nilsson, whose morning commute along Highway 238 between her Applegate Valley home and her work in Grants Pass puts her in harm's way.
She always drives her 1997 Jeep Cherokee slowly along the highway as she watches for darting deer. In September, her fears were realized.
"It came out of nowhere and there was no way I could miss it," Nilsson says. "It totally smushed the front panel. It was a big buck.
"There are so many dead deer on that road right now it's amazing," she says.
Blacktails are normally reclusive animals that prefer brush and eschew roads, but they drop their sense of caution during fall's mating game.
"They're basically thinking, 'Where is that doe?'" says Mark Vargas, the Rogue District wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "They're not interested in much else — like paying attention to vehicles."
That's why most bucks show up in the roadkill count during the rut, often hit by drivers too interested in the doe bounding away than where it entered the roadway in the first place, Vargas says.
"While they're watching the doe, the buck comes out and they hit the buck," he says.
Southern Oregon's blacktailed deer are highly migratory, and fall is when herds move from high-elevation summer range to low-elevation areas for the winter, Vargas says. That migration includes crossing many roadways.
"They're moving and that's a lot of collisions right there," Vargas says.
ODOT crews pick up roadkill animals and a few get salvaged and donated to wildlife rehabilitation centers. It is illegal in Oregon for people to salvage any part of roadkill animals, so most end up in ODOT "stockpile yards" as carrion for scavengers, says ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming.
"Some are so smashed they just become part of the pavement, unfortunately," Leaming says.
In Waldrop's case, she turned her Jetta around believing she needed to warn oncoming motorists not to hit the buck's carcass in the roadway.
But it was gone. A man in a pickup who saw the wreck stopped and his flashlight soon found the mortally wounded animal nearby, she says.
A Jackson County sheriff's deputy killed it. Waldrop stuck around for a tow-truck driver.
"We seem to keep the collision shops busy," she says.
The hits just keep coming at Medford's Star Body Works, where workers see the gamut of damage done in roadkill cases.
"Hitting a deer at 55 mph will total almost any car," says Joey Iversen, a Star tow-truck driver. "At 35 mph, a car is usually repairable for a couple thousand dollars."
Waldrop hasn't had an estimate on her Jetta's repairs, but she's expecting it to run $3,000 to $4,000.
When it gets repaired, you won't find Waldrop driving it on Foothill Road very often, especially in the fall.
"I won't be driving Foothill in the dark again, I'll tell you that," she says. "I'll go through town."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at email@example.com.