(Mother Fox and Kits on the road in Cumberland county, NS. Photo courtesy of Shawn Chapman. May 2020)
Many of us have spent the past several months looking forward to a time when social distancing restrictions are reduced and we are finally able to do some of the things we have been missing during the COVID-19 lockdown, such as going to restaurants and taking weekend trips. For the past several months, people have greatly reduced their car travel, and typically only have driven in order to accomplish essential tasks. Now that the summer season is inching towards us and COVID-19 restrictions are slowly being lessened, Watch for Wildlife wants to remind drivers returning to the road that wildlife has become accustomed to our decreased activity and it is important to use the proper precautions to prevent wildlife-vehicle collisions.
Spring is a busy time for wildlife. Animals are coming out of hibernation, looking for food, and mating; this results in more road crossings than a typical winter month. Due to increased activity, wildlife collisions usually increase in number during spring —with a peak in collision occurrences in May. This year, however, has not followed this collision pattern. Significant traffic reduction on roads caused by COVID-19 has allowed wildlife to travel across roads with lower risk of being run over. For example, Nova Scotia’s spotted salamander normally faces high rates of vehicle strike during their April breeding season. Crossing roads in search of a pond and to lay their eggs can be a perilous journey for a small salamander, and is the species’ leading cause of mortality. But this year was different; experts observed obvious reduction in instances of salamander road death during this April’s annual migration compared with previous years.
(Spotted Salamander. Photo Courtesy of Crowley. 2014)
With the absence of human activity which fills roads with vehicles, wildlife has been able to cross roads more successfully than usual; but what happens as more people return to their average travel habits? To gain some insight on this unique season, we reached out to Biodiversity and Conservation professor at Dalhousie University, Dr. Karen Beazley, who has published a study on the impact of road density on wildlife in Nova Scotia. Here are her thoughts:
To start, what are some activities that wildlife is usually getting up to this time of year that could result in wildlife collisions?
“It used to be that there was a lot of habitat and not many roads, and not much traffic. Now, there are a lot of roads. Habitats for wildlife are getting smaller and fragmented into isolated patches with roads cutting through them.
This means that wildlife now have to cross roads to get from one part of their habitat to another. Some animals need to cross the road every day to get all the things they need to survive, such as food, water and shelter. Even if they have enough habitat to survive the day, most species need to move at certain times of the year, often in spring and fall. Many need to move to meet their seasonal requirements, such as from their wintering grounds to their summer habitat.
In the Maritimes we don’t see large seasonal migrations of large animals like elk and caribou that you see in other parts of the world. However, many of our local wildlife need to move from place to place to meet their basic requirements over their lifetimes, from mating to birthing, to wintering. We see many individuals or smaller groups of medium to large animals on the move, and we see mass migrations of smaller ones, such as frogs and salamanders.
All of these species need to move for various reasons. Hungry from the winter, they need to find rich sources of food. Mothers need to move their offspring from their sheltered nesting, calving or denning areas to places that provide richer food and other resources. Turtles need to move from streams and other wintering sites to areas to lay their eggs. They particularly like to lay them on gravelly roadsides. Adults of many species need to roam to find mates. Young adults need to leave their mothers’ territory and find their own territory. Many different species of wildlife need to move from one place to another in the spring. There are lots of reasons why the animal has to cross the road, not only in the spring, but all year round.”
How do you think social distancing may have impacted wildlife activity?
“Prior to COVID-19, animals had, over time, adapted their ways in response to our increased presence in their habitats. Many avoided places where we spent time and many started hunting and foraging at nighttime, when there are fewer of us out and about, counter to their normal practices. With social distancing, there are fewer people traveling and there is less road traffic. It has not taken long for wildlife to notice and take advantage of this, reverting to their normal and preferred ways. They are now foraging and hunting in the daytime, and moving back and forth at will between various parts of their habitats, including crossing roads that are now more quiet.“
Do you think drivers returning to the road should be extra cautious of wildlife activity as social distancing restrictions are reduced?
“As we start to return to our daily patterns, drivers need to be mindful that wildlife has gotten used to our absence. They may not be expecting us on the roads. We need to be extra cautious of wildlife activity near roads. We should give them time to adapt back to knowing we are there. Ultimately, as drivers, we can embrace practices that reflect human-wildlife coexistence, rather than human-wildlife conflict.”
What is one method you use to reduce your chances of being involved in a wildlife vehicle collision?
“To reduce my chances of being involved in a wildlife vehicle collision, I minimize the number of trips I make. I plan ahead and combine as many trip-related errands as possible in one trip, travelling by motor vehicle only when necessary.
When I have to drive, I always watch for wildlife. I am ever mindful of wildlife. I maintain awareness that an animal may leap in front of me at any moment. I do not want to kill or injure another being. I continuously scan the roadsides and verges for movement or other signs of wildlife, ready to break if necessary. To be able to do so safely, I monitor the presence of vehicles around me. To provide the opportunity for other drivers on the road to also break for wildlife, I leave lots of space between me and the car in front of me. I drive no faster than the speed limit.
I am especially cautious at dusk, dawn and at night, when animals are more likely to be on the move. Animals have adapted to our increased presence and have changed their behaviours accordingly. Many species have become habituated to moving, hunting and foraging at nighttime, when there are fewer of us around. I try to avoid driving at these times altogether, and when I do, I try to make sure I can stop within the distance of my headlight beams. This is only possible if I and others drive no faster than the speed limit. Oftentimes, I serve as a portable speed bump, slowing traffic behind me to the maximum speed limit.”
(Group of white-tailed deer by a road in Cole Harbour, NS. Photo courtesy of Stephen Ruxton. May 2020)
More Wildlife vehicle Collision Prevention Tips
Dr. Beazley touched on some great ways to prevent finding yourself in a wildlife vehicle collision. Situational awareness is essential to spot an animal on the road, so driving free from distraction and scanning ahead will help your chances of avoiding collision. Speed is also a huge factor in animal collisions, because driving the speed limit will give you more time to slow down during a wildlife encounter. If you do see an animal on the road, it is especially important during the springtime to look for any young that may be following close behind its mother.
What to do after a collision
Although there are plenty of precautions you can take to avoid a wildlife collision, in some instances, colliding with an animal may be unavoidable. When faced with an animal on the road, brake gently when you can, but never swerve to avoid wildlife in front of your vehicle because it puts you at risk of colliding with another car or driving off the road.
After hitting an animal with your car, it is extremely important that you report the collision to the proper department so there is a record of the animal’s mortality. Data from reported road strikes inform researchers so that mitigation measures can be put in place to prevent collisions from occurring in the future. If the animal is still alive, reporting the occurrence to a local wildlife rescue could save the animal’s life. A list of key contacts for reporting wildlife-vehicle collisions in Nova Scotia can be found on our website at watchforwildlife.ca. If you would like to receive a brochure with these contacts and more wildlife collision information, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org; we will send you one free of charge. They are super handy to keep in your glove box!
We are about to embark on a new post-lockdown chapter in our history. In many ways, this could be an opportunity for a fresh start - including our relationship with wildlife. As we return to our busy schedules, it is important that we are aware of the other creatures inhabiting the areas we drive through. Humans are not the only beings traveling on roads, so for the sake of your own safety and the safety of others, please remember to always Watch for Wildlife.
Allison Dean is the Coordinator of the Watch for Wildlife program and has a B.S. in environmental science and policy from St. Edward’s University.
With the World on Pause, Salamanders Own the Road, New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/18/science/salamanders-amphibians-wildlife-migration.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage
What our best and brightest are pretty sure is happening with wildlife, Canada’s National Observer. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/05/07/news/livingroom-science-what-our-best-and-brightest-are-pretty-sure-happening-wildlife?fbclid=IwAR3vGurEPwjk8ZFKauMBL4_LE20xTVumBPfT8UEDrlKHXrvtM18hjo_7I9I
How COVID-19 shutdowns have affected the animal kingdom, CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/what-on-earth-newsletter-covid-19-animal-kingdom-1.5511266?cmp=newsletter_What+on+Earth_857_12454&fbclid=IwAR3VHKvlc1AeTt_TvA63lFJBwPydHM-OyDfXyiTJ4J7OITL1Q1PWAghf6YQ
Mother Fox and Kits on the road in Cumberland county, NS. - Shawn Chapman
Spotted Salamander - Crowley
Group of thite-tailed deer by a road in Cole Harbour, NS. - Stephen Ruxton
Wildlife collision prevention graphic - Allison Dean