Woman's concern prompts study about I-280 deer


If you're a wild animal, a quiet meadow is as close as you'll get to paradise. The only problem is the neighbors -- giant metal boxes flying across a slab of concrete.

To you and me, it's transportation. To a deer, it's a death trap.

On a 20-mile stretch of I-280 between San Bruno and Redwood City, some 50 deer have been hit by cars over the course of four years. Most of the deer did not survive.

"It's not a very graceful way to die, to end your life," animal activist Kathryn said.

Kathryn -- a self proclaimed animal lover -- saw some of the roadside carnage and decided something had to be done.

"I felt like I really needed to be a voice, actually, for these animals since they can't' vote, you know, or speak English or Spanish, I thought I'd help them out," Kathryn said.

So Kathryn did what she said she thought any good citizen would do, she picked up the phone and called Caltrans. What she got was far more than she ever expected.

"Actually I've heard that they've never seen anything move through the state this quickly," Kathryn said.

A few phone calls later, Kathryn was introduced to UC Davis Professor Fraser Shilling. He runs the California Roadkill Observation System.

"There are people who study roadkill as part of understanding wildlife and how wildlife move in relation to roads," Shilling said.

And because of Kathryn's phone call, Caltrans offered Shilling a $381,000 grant to do a study tracking the deer alongside I-280.

Department of Fish and Game workers catch deer one at a time and attach high tech GPS tracking collars, allowing Shilling to watch their every move in real time.

"The deer that we've put the collars on we put them on intentionally because they're right next to the freeway," Shilling said.

Shilling discovered that each deer lives in a relatively small area, about a one-quarter square mile, he calls a home range. In it, the deer needs a place to sleep, a place to eat and a good supply of clean water.

It's kind of like your house if your house had a freeway running through it.

"And they've got their bedroom on one side, and you know, the dining room on the other, so they're crossing back and forth," Shilling said.

But Shilling has learned that "some" deer are crossing the right way.

"That has safely gone back and forth across 280 using the underpass near Crystal Springs Road; so it's safely moving across, it's not endangering drivers, and we wouldn't have known about that without that collar on the animal," Shilling said.

But how do you get all the deer to do that?

"We have to give them pathways; a deer up here at the north end of the reservoir doesn't know to walk down to this nice underpass," Shilling said.

By watching the deer move around on his computer screen, Shilling has figured out they'll travel up to a mile outside their home range to find a safe way across. If they don't, they'll make a run for it.

One possible solution is to build fences along the roadside eight feet tall and then dig culverts under the road about once every mile.

It's a million dollar answer that Caltrans says it's willing to consider.

As for Kathryn, UC Davis liked her enthusiasm so much they made her the project coordinator.

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