Road scholars at E-470 nearly end deer crashes with fence designs

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AURORA | A deer in the highway has long been the road to disaster.

When cars hit large animals on a highway, car damage is the least of worries. Often, the crashes cause human injuries and even deaths. As urban communities continue to reach into the wilds, the confrontations become increasingly common and never less dangerous, wildlife officials say.

Officials at E-470, which has pushed the metro area far into the plains, say the threat prompted them to take a tack that appears to have made a stark difference.

But toll road officials say some recent efforts to keep deer off the highway are proving successful. 

With much of the road winding through some ideal deer habitat — grassy hills, several streams and stands of pine trees on rolling plains— deer are always going to be an issue. 

Walt Arnason, manager of operations for E-470, said with no major predators in the area, the deer population along E-470 remains high.  

“It’s not a migratory herd, it’s a stationary herd that just lives here,” he said. 

Last year, the toll road installed 8-foot high deer fences along a five-mile stretch from Smoky Hill Road to Parker Road and 14 wildlife escape ramps that let deer jump down a small ledge if they do manage to get trapped on the roadway.  

The fences have meant far fewer deer running into the road and that has meant fewer crashes, down from 43 in 2012 to 20 last year. 

Toll road officials say last year’s drop was even more impressive considering that crews started installing the fence in spring 2013 and weren’t finished until the fall, meaning there were several months the fence wasn’t even complete and deer collisions were still down. 

And the drop in deer-related crashes is coming at a time when traffic on the toll road is only increasing, up 13 percent from 2008 to 2013. 

So far this year, there have been two deer collisions in the five-mile stretch. 

Jim Brady, an E-470 engineer who designed the project, said he is pretty sure he knows how the two collisions happened. 

In one, a fawn climbed onto the roadway from a gap in the fence in the median near Piney Creek. A bridge goes over the creek there and Brady said when the project was launched, there wasn’t a fence on the median between the two bridges. The fawn managed to climb a steep embankment and get onto the highway. 

Brady said once the weather warmed up this spring, crews added fences in the medians between bridges in the project area. 

The other collision happened on an on-ramp near Smoky Hill Road. Brady said that area is one where the fence ends and deer willing to walk along Smoky Hill Road can get on the highway, a problem he said there isn’t much toll road officials can do about. 

“We knew this was a weak spot,” he said.

In addition to the escape ramps — essentially a dirt incline that deer can climb and jump down a small cliff to get back on the right side of the fence — Brady said toll road officials are making sure deer can use culverts and paths under bridges to get away from the road. Brady said deer will use the culverts as long as they are tall enough and they can see all the way through to the other side.