Mapping Traffic’s Toll on Wildlife
By MALIA WOLLAN
Published: September 12, 2010
DAVIS, Calif. — To Ron Ringen, a retired veterinarian, roadkill is a calling.
Noah Berger for The New York Times
Nearly every week for the last seven months, Mr. Ringen, 69, has driven the roads north of this college town near Sacramento, scanning the pavement for telltale bits of fur and feathers.
Pulling over, Mr. Ringen gets out, snaps photographs and uses his GPS device to record the precise location where creatures met their end. He has logged more than 1,400 animals, from the miniature (one-ounce song sparrows) to the gargantuan (a 1,500-pound black Angus bull).
“Most people don’t realize how many animals die on the road every day — they just don’t see it,” he said.
While Mr. Ringen’s friends goad him with nicknames like “Doctor Roadkill,” he is not alone in his peculiar pursuit. Hundreds of volunteers collect and upload roadkill data to the California Roadkill Observation System, a mapping Web site built by researchers at the University of California, Davis, to better understand where and why cars strike animals.
Begun a year ago, the Web site — www.wildlifecrossing.net/california — is the first statewide effort to map roadkill using citizen observers. Volunteers comb the state’s highways and country roads for dead animals, collecting GPS coordinates, photographs and species information and uploading it to a database and Google map populated with dots representing the kills. The site’s gruesome gallery includes photos of flattened squirrels or squashed skunks.
“For some people the only contact they have with wild animals is when they run them over,” said Fraser M. Shilling, the lead researcher on the project. “This is the first time people have been able to record roadkill online and I think it will change our understanding of what our road system is really doing to wildlife.”
The site’s founders hope to soon hire a software engineer to design a smartphone app. They think one would attract new and younger volunteers, speed up the process, and, with built-in GPS function, assure more accurate location information.
About 73 million GPS-enabled cellphones and 23 million automotive GPS units will be shipped in the United States and Canada this year, according to IMS Research, a market research firm. “GPS is very pervasive,” said Bill Morelli, an analyst with the firm.
“Everybody is interested in pursuing the benefits of getting data points from these devices,” he said. For example, wireless providers like AT&T and Sprint are looking into applications that would use drivers’ GPS smartphones to monitor traffic speed in real time.
The roadkill maps give researchers a better understanding of the environmental impacts of roads. They intend to use the data to build statistical and Geographic Information Systems models to predict roadkill hot spots and to determine where animal road crossings, culverts and warning signs may be most effective on current and future roadways.
Given the more than 258 million vehicles on the country’s four million miles of public roads, it is little wonder that cars regularly strike animals. Estimates for just how many run-ins occur each year vary widely.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates that a million animals are killed by vehicles every day, while a 2008 Federal Highway Administration report puts the number of accidents with large animals between one million and two million a year. The agency estimates such accidents result in over $8 billion in damages annually.
In addition, about 200 people die each year in accidents with deer and other animals, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Federal Highway Administration provides money to state transportation agencies to help minimize the number of animal accidents. “The methods are as varied as the wildlife themselves, ranging from fences, bridges and tunnels to electronic animal-detection warning systems,” said Victor Mendez, the agency’s administrator.
Still, Mr. Shilling and his colleagues think that drivers armed with keen eyes, GPS devices and smartphones are perhaps better suited than government agencies to map the cumulative effects of roadkill.
In late March, the researchers started a second Web site, in Maine, called Maine Audubon Wildlife Road Watch, available via wildlifecrossing.net. “There are so many miles of road, the more people you have involved looking for roadkill, the better,” said Susan Gallo, a wildlife biologist with Maine Audubon, the group that commissioned the site in partnership with the state’s transportation department and other state agencies.
Despite the grisly nature of the task, volunteers have been enthusiastic, Mr. Shilling says. Even with limited public outreach, the California site has almost 300 registered users and more than 6,900 documented kills.
In Maine, the most commonly counted roadkill species is the North American porcupine. “I see an awful lot of them. They just move so slow,” said Donna Runnels, 58. She uploads the data she collects while walking and riding her horse near her home in Burnham, Me.
The animal most likely to be found dead along a California road is the raccoon, though hundreds of species have been counted, including desert iguanas, black bears, tiger salamanders, brown pelicans and western shovelnose snakes.
During countless hours on hundreds of miles of road, Mr. Ringen’s eyes have become attuned to the tiniest tattered remains; he can spot a flattened mouse while driving 50 miles an hour, he says. Nevertheless, occasionally his eyes trick him. He regularly pulls over for what he thinks are bird remains only to find discarded banana peels.
Last spring driving on Interstate 80 crossing the Sacramento River Delta, he saw, to his disbelief, what seemed to be a small shark on the highway. He exited and circled his car back to the spot only to find a child’s stuffed toy shark. “This is how crazy you get,” Mr. Ringen said. “I’m almost a fanatic with it. You get hooked. You wake up wondering ‘What am I going to find out there today?’ ”