Ask the average Canadian to name the members of the North American wild kingdom that wreak the greatest havoc on our species and you're likely to hear a list of the usual sharp-toothed suspects.
Sharks, snakes, mountain lions and bears will lead the killers’ roster, along with smaller assassins such as bees and mosquitoes.
But the majority will likely overlook the true menaces to our existence: those Bambis and Bullwinkles that exact a pretty heavy toll on humanity thanks to their tendency to carry their considerable bulk on to our highways and collide with vehicles.
But they’re not alone in threatening both our species and their own. Don’t dismiss the smaller critters such as raccoons, skunks and turtles that cause drivers to swerve dangerously to avoid turning them into roadkill.
The numbers are staggering: According to one study, in Ontario alone there are an estimated 14,000 wildlife-vehicle collisions a year – 5 to 10 per cent of all accidents. On average, 600 of those result in serious injuries and six are fatal.
In the U.S., it's estimated that 200 people die every year in collisions with wildlife.
The financial costs are equally staggering.
A U.S. study conducted a decade ago estimated that wildlife car collisions cost US$8.4-billion a year. Using the usual 1:10 ratio, we’re talking about $800-million in Canada.
It's also been estimated that 5 to 10 per cent of the average Canadian's car insurance is attributed to car-animal collisions.
Considering those statistics, you might think that governments would be moving rapidly to end this road carnage. With few exceptions, though, it's pretty much being ignored.
A University of Waterloo study found that solutions are relatively simple and relatively inexpensive.
"In some cases, the measures are very cheap," says University of Waterloo associate professor Michael Drescher, who co-authored the study with graduate student Kristin Elton.
The Waterloo study focused on Ontario, which Drescher says has one of the poorest records in Canada for keeping cars and wildlife off a collision course.
The study, which was based mainly on Southern Ontario’s vast network of highways, found the province, drivers and insurance companies could save millions by investing in relatively low-tech solutions to the problem – solutions that have worked well in places like British Columbia and Alberta.
Possibly the cheapest and most effective solution is trimming back or altering roadside vegetation. Instead of heavy bushes at the roadside, leaving a larger buffer zone and planting trees with tall trunks that allow drivers to see wildlife approaching roads would reduce the death toll significantly.
That’s far more effective than roadside warning signs or in-car systems that alert drivers to the presence of living things approaching the road. “There’s no real evidence that either of these work,” Drescher says.
The same goes for deer whistles, which send out a signal that's supposed to send deer fleeing from roadways.
Reducing speed limits would also reduce collisions, but Drescher says, "I'm not sure how often people will heed that."
Costlier but effective solutions include building animal overpasses and underpasses, the latter basically large culverts. Combined with fencing that directs animals to the overpasses and underpasses, they have proven especially effective in Banff National Park. Six overpasses and more than three dozen underpasses have reduced the mortality rate by 80 per cent.
With planning, the cost of these wildlife highways doesn't have to be prohibitive.
On Ontario's Highway 69 between Parry Sound and Sudbury, larger culverts, overpasses, gates and fencing were worked into the road project right from the start back in 2005. Collisions have been reduced and no moose or elk have breached the fences.
According to Drescher, the safety measures added only 2 per cent to the construction costs.
``But it works only if you work them into a project," he says. ``Otherwise, a stand-alone project would cost a lot more."
But that’s another hurdle, he says. Getting engineers, ecologists and governments to work together on the issue may not be easy, but it’s necessary to reduce the carnage on our highways.