Back-Seat Driver

Is drought causing more animals to be hit by cars?

Add this to your Thanksgiving weekend road risks: Animals who apparently have not read the DMV handbook that says you can’t just run willy-nilly across the highway.

The number of collisions between cars and large animals in the foothills spiked dramatically last week, state officials say – 23 hits in six days. They involved mainly deer, but also bears.

A Caltrans dispatcher in Kingvale hit a bear the other day on Interstate 80. But a lot of the collisions have been lower down around populated areas: Placerville, Cameron Park, Penryn, Loomis and Rocklin.

Why? It’s deer mating season, and that means bucks are on the move, looking for does but not cars. State wildlife biologist Sara Holm just saw a buck, with its tongue hanging out, chasing a doe on Placer Hills Road east of Auburn alongside passing cars. “He wasn’t paying attention to anything but her.”

Bears meanwhile are on the prowl as well, fueling up for hibernation. But Caltrans and state wildlife biologists say the recent spate of incidents may also be connected to the drought.

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Dana Michaels said lack of quality food may be forcing animals to travel more, bringing them into more populated areas, where vehicle traffic is heavier, and drivers less wildlife-vigilant.

“When vegetation is stressed, they don’t get the nourishment they need,” she said. “They have to travel more to find more to eat.”

The King fire, which burned a huge swath of 100,000 mountainous acres in El Dorado County, also likely played a role in driving animals downslope. Roadside food and wrapper litter also serve as a deadly attraction to willdlife.

Caltrans and Fish and Wildlife officials issued a joint warning this week pointing out that the issue is one of human health as well as animal welfare. Deer look cute but can weigh more than 200 pounds.

“Motorists need to be on the lookout,” said Fish and Wildlife chief Charlton Bonham. “It’s not only dangerous for the animals, but drivers and their passengers can be injured or killed if they hit – or swerve to miss – an animal.”

Wildlife officials advise drivers near wildland areas to expand their visual “sweep” to include the brush and trees on both sides of the road to help spot an animal before it runs onto the pavement. Deer are most active in the morning and evening. Slow down in general, but especially around curves in wooded areas. If you see an animal crossing the road, figure a few others may emerge from the brush to follow it.

The tricky part: What if an animal is suddenly right in front of you? You may have a tough choice. If you see a deer in your headlights, flashing the lights may cause the animal to move. Blow your horn. In some instances, it may be better to steer straight and hope the deer bolts in time.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.