PITTSBURGH — Sometimes smell is the first sense suggesting what’s just up the road, and it’s never a pretty sight.
Most road-killed animals are still disposed of the old-fashioned way: Something eats them, occasionally becoming the next meal of opportunity for yet another hungry omnivore.
But in modern society someone has to clean up the biggest road-kill hazards, and in Pennsylvania those are clumps of dead deer. State Farm insurance ranked Pennsylvania third in the U.S. for deer-vehicle collisions in 2017 — one in every 63 state motorists was expected to collide with a deer, most likely in autumn.
“The main reason they’re roaming around is they’re mating,” said State Farm spokeswoman Missy Dundov. “The months we see the most deer collisions are October, November and December. They’re on the move more. It more than doubles the likelihood that drivers will have deer-vehicle collisions.”
According to State Farm, Pennsylvania motorists had a 6.3 percent greater chance of hitting a deer in 2017 than in the year before. West Virginia continued to lead the nation in deer-vehicle collision insurance claims. Montana ranked No. 2.
But State Farm’s risk assessment is based on 15 years of claims for automobile repairs and total losses related to deer strikes, not necessarily deer that were killed on roadways. In fact, there is no universal method used to quantify road-killed animals.
Biologists who study deer say it is impossible to deduce some larger perspective about highway traffic or deer density based solely on local road kill counts. Although driver observations of local road kills may suggest the count is rising, falling or remaining stable, without additional supporting data those sightings are merely anecdotal.
Many people wrongly assume that deer cleanup is the responsibility of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Funded mostly by hunter dollars and not taxes, the agency has sole oversight of the management of wildlife but not necessarily its disposal.
“The Game Commission assumes that responsibility on municipal roads. In some regions, however, the district office might contract for pickup rather than rely on officers to do it,” agency spokesman Travis Lau said.
Game Commission biologists have other motives for collecting carcasses. Counts of road kills and of the fetuses in dead does are among many criteria used in determining where and how many doe hunting permits are to be allocated to each county during the following deer-hunting seasons. As the state attempts to control the spread of chronic wasting disease, a brain disorder posing a serious threat to Pennsylvania deer, two Disease Management Areas were established. Inside, biological samples are taken from road-killed deer, all hunter deer harvests and hundreds of deer culled by Game Commission staff.
“Last year we sampled about 5,700 and ended with a total of 25 (cases) outside of deer farms,” said Wayne LaRoche, the state Game Commission’s special assistant for CWD response. “This year we took samples from about 8,000 deer. So far, the total number of CWD positives in Pennsylvania is 55, but there will be more — we have more than 4,000 test results still outstanding.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation keeps track of deer killed on state highways based on driver safety needs. In 1996, the first year the data was collected, 1,904 deer-vehicle collisions were recorded, resulting in three human fatalities. By 2006, 2,700 crashes involving deer occurred on state roads claiming 11 lives. Last year 12 people died in 4,018 deer-related highway accidents.
In Allegheny County, where carcasses are counted, the totals are trending downward. Stephen G. Shanley, Public Works director, said that in 2015, 17 white-tailed deer were removed from county roads. Pickup calls dropped to 16 in 2016, and last year there were only 10.
“The county does not use a contractor to remove road kill,” said communications specialist Brent Wasko. “Allegheny County Public Works supervisors work with the Pennsylvania Game Commission to coordinate removal, and if needed Public Works takes care of it.”
Each of Allegheny’s 130 municipalities has its own plan for road kill removal. A community kerfuffle over an ongoing deer management program pushed Mt. Lebanon’s road kill statistics into the news, yet the home rule municipality of some 33,000 cleans up its own whitetail messes as well as those of some of its neighbors.
“Mt. Lebanon has an in-house animal control division as part of our police department,” said Ian McMeans, assistant municipal manager and point man on the deer program. “Animal Control conducts our dead deer pick-ups as well as responding to other road kill calls.”
The multifaceted Mt. Lebanon deer plan calls for a 50 percent reduction in deer-vehicle collisions in five years. Commissioners realized that police are not notified about all deer-related vehicle accidents, some injured deer may be reported multiple times and some deer survive collisions long enough to fall far from the road and are never found.
Separate tallies are kept for Deer Vehicular Crashes Reported to Police Department and Dead Deer Pick-Up by Animal Control. Both show the number is dropping, but in different ways. In 2013, 44 deer collisions were reported to police but 90 dead deer were picked up by animal control. By 2015, crashes involving deer had risen to 73 and the number of pickups increased to 127. But from 2016 to 2017, collisions dropped from 122 to 86. In the same time period, pickups fell from 88 to 65.