Wildlife on the Road: a Region-by-Region Guide


Be prepared and stay safe

buffalo on road

Even if you don’t live in parts of the U.S. with distinctly changing seasons, that unmistakable autumn chill might still catch you once in a while (though in some places it might be more of a figment of your imagination. Or a very early morning). But whether you’re watching leaves change and unpacking scarves from storage, or still wearing sandals and sunscreen, this time of year still means something big for us all: Thanksgiving. And with it, the kick-off of the busiest long-distance travel period of the year (running through the late-December holidays).

The average Thanksgiving trip by car covers 214 miles, and half of all travelers don’t even spend one night at their feast destination. Suffice to say: many of us will be traveling a lot in the coming weeks. The National Safety Council counts Thanksgiving as the third most dangerous holiday for car travel, and this year they estimate 433 lives will be lost in traffic crashes between 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, November 25 and 11:59 pm. on Sunday, November 29.

This time of year, we’re often reminded—and with good reason—to remain sober while driving, to watch out for dangerous drivers, and to be aware of possible weather-related dangers (like black ice, flash floods, and fires). But we’d like to take this opportunity to call your attention to another possible hazard for those traveling for turkey (or cauliflower steaks): wildlife. Specifically, wildlife drivers are likely to encounter, by region, throughout the U.S., and how to stay safe.

geese on road

What to Do When Encountering Wildlife

Remember when you first got behind the wheel, and your mom warned your animal-loving self that if a squirrel, or, even worse, a cat, ran into the road, you were to slow down if you could but to never, ever swerve, hard as it would be to run over the defenseless creature? Well, your mom was right—and not just about small animals, but bigger ones, too. When an animal is on the road in front of you (even a deer), in general, most experts recommend hitting the brakes hard, honking the horn, and not swerving. We repeat: Do Not Swerve. If you swerve, you’re likely to crash into an oncoming vehicle, or lose control of your car and roll over, drive into a ditch, or hit another fixed object—not to mention the danger you’ll pose to other drivers once your two-ton metal box goes off-script.

Emergency stopping is a situation in which you need to know the specifics of your car. Edmunds.com explains what to do in the case of a “panic stop.” They say, “If your vehicle has computer-controlled antilock braking systems (ABS), all you need do is stomp, stay and, if necessary, steer. You will stop in an unbelievably short distance. Beginning with the 2012 model year, new passenger vehicles have been required to have electronic stability control (ESC), a system that includes ABS as a key component. And about half of 15-year-old cars are equipped with ABS, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).”

If you encounter an animal on the road hit the brakes, honk your horn, and remember: Do not swerve.

Our roads and development have fragmented the habitats of wild animals across the nation; it’s up to us to exercise caution and be on the lookout for wildlife on or near roads. Pay attention to those big yellow caution signs and, especially in areas known for wildlife, operate under the assumption that you’re likely to encounter creatures and be alert. Here are some additional safety tips, from Thea Ryan, of the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Division of Wildlife:

  • Slow down, especially at night. You have a better chance of avoiding an accident at a lower speed.
  • Scan the road ditch to ditch at night, not just down the middle.
  • Use your high beams. Animal eyes will reflect light better and you might see them.

deer on road

Wildlife By Region

And now some more specific advice for wildlife you might encounter while driving (keep in mind many of the following animals live in many U.S. regions):

Northeast

Deer: Deer are prevalent not only in the Northeast, but around the country. If you see a deer along the side of the road or, more frighteningly, in the road ahead, honk the horn and slow down or stop, if possible, and then honk a few more times (a warning for any additional deer who might be nearby). The headlights will blind and disorient them, but the sound from your horn will tell them where the danger is so they can run in the opposite direction.

Moose: One of the big (ha) exceptions to the “do not swerve” rule. Moose are most active near roads during the spring and fall, and in wintertime when the roads have recently been salted. They can weigh up to 1600 pounds, and DMV.org describes them as “compact vehicle[s] on stilts.” In the case of a moose, do whatever you can to avoid hitting it because their weight and long legs often result in their bodies crushing passenger compartments of vehicles when they’re struck, which can be fatal. If you’re too close to stop or avoid a moose, aim for the hind legs if you can—there’s likely to be less damage to both the moose and your car if you do. If there’s time before the collision, all passengers should duck below the windshield level and turn towards the door closest to them. Get out of the car as quickly as possible afterward as flailing moose legs can be deadly.

Midwest

Prairie Dogs: The relatively small size of these animals (relative to say, a moose) means there’s less danger to the vehicle’s occupants if an unavoidable collision takes place. However, if you see one prairie dog, you’re likely to see several more, as they travel in packs. These creatures also come to retrieve their dead, so if one’s been struck on a road, exercise extreme caution as you’re likely to see more dogs come to claim the body.

South

Alligators: You’re most likely to encounter an alligator on the road during the spring and summer (when they breed). If you see one on the road while driving, stay in the car and wait for it to make its way across the road. Do not attempt to move the alligator, and don’t prod it in any way. Doing so is not only dangerous (alligators may look like they’d be slow, but they move with surprising speed and agility on land), it’s illegal: harassing an alligator, or throwing things at them, is punishable by a fine of up to $2500 and 30 days in jail.
alligator on road

Southwest

The Southwest is home to many creatures who don’t often appear elsewhere in the U.S.. Many southwestern states have large rural swaths that lend themselves to large wildlife populations, and drivers are likely to encounter all types of animals, big and small. The Santa Fe Reporter writes that in New Mexico, “Between 2002 and 2011, the [Department of Transportation] recorded traffic accidents caused by encounters with two skunks, five badgers, six porcupines, eight turkey vultures, 12 mountain lions, 14 crows, 29 birds, 94 ‘game animals,’ 117 ‘other animals,’ 134 ‘unknown animals,’ 136 black bears, 151 pronghorn, 202 coyotes, 1,840 elk and 7,461 deer. And those are just the collisions that resulted in a call for help. Between 50 to 85 percent of wildlife deaths by cars and trucks go unreported, insiders say.” So, when traveling in the Southwest, remember to employ all our above safety tips.

West

Grizzly bears: Native to the region, grizzly bears are not afraid of humans and tend to be more aggressive than their cousins, the black bear. Adult grizzlys weigh anywhere from 200-700 pounds, so, as with moose, if you encounter one on the road, do what you can to avoid hitting it. One of the likeliest places you’ll encounter a grizzly is in one of the region’s many famous national parks. If you’re traveling by car through a national park, there are some special precautions you should take. Anthony Bianco, from The Travel Tart, tells us: While in the park, don’t store anything that might be appealing snacking material for bears, such as the obvious, like food and drinks, but also things like makeup and lotions. Bianco says of a recent trip to Yosemite, “A ranger told me that a bear had ripped open a car like a can opener to get hold of some food a few days before I arrived. There are numerous bear proof lockers around to store these things so that your car doesn’t become a write off.”

What wildlife did we forget? Tell us in the comments.