When humans and wildlife collide
In a split second, the night filled with sounds of shattering glass, crushing metal and a life-stopping thud I will never forget.
On Nov. 21, as I was driving upvalley near Woody Creek, I hit a five-point bull elk, weighing between 900 and 1,000 pounds, killing him instantly.
It was about 5:45 p.m., after dusk and already dark. Even now, I can clearly remember I had both hands on the wheel, and I was listening to the radio, to Prince’s “1999” of all things. And I had my seat belt on ” as always. A car wreck without one will teach you to always put it on.
Right past the Pitkin County Landfill, I hit him. He shot up out of nowhere, like a cut-out figure in a carnival ride. One second my headlights showed clear road ahead of me. The next split second was animal and noise, and I heard and felt the crash, and the tremendous, head-jarring power of a big, beautiful wild animal’s life ending.
Since the accident, I’ve heard horror stories about elk and vehicle collisions, with the tops of cars being sheared off and people being decapitated.
I’m beyond lucky that didn’t happen to me, though I had a few things going for me. I was driving a Saab, and Saabs are known for their strong safety record. (I replaced my totaled Saab with ” you guessed it ” another Saab.)
I also was wearing my seat belt, and the collision happened so fast, I didn’t even have time to put on the brakes. One of the EMTs at the hospital told me that not braking might have saved my life, since a car will dip forward when the brakes are slammed on.
The elk had been in a full-on run when he collided with the left front side of my car, and then the windshield. He rolled up on the roof, over my car and landed in the road behind me. Both my side windows were blown out, the driver’s door wouldn’t open, and the roof of my car was folded in like cloth, just inches from my head.
Cars and trucks started pulling over. Someone called the state patrol. Someone else called an ambulance. A woman who is an EMT ran up and checked on me. She asked if she could take the elk and dress out the meat that was usable. I said absolutely. He was gone, but his meat could be used. I believe in that. It’s the same reason I’ve authorized the organ donor option on my driver’s license.
Later, at the hospital, I checked out OK. Even though my air bags didn’t go off ” the elk hit high, away from the triggers that would set off the bags ” I was virtually unscathed except for a sore neck and a feeling that I’d been hit by a Mack truck.
But I hadn’t been hit. Technically, I guess I could say the elk and I collided, but the reality is that I hit him.
We ” all of us ” are colliding with wildlife. All of us who drive through deer and elk habitat ” or should I say former wildlife habitat ” are encroaching on these animals’ territories.
We’re here. They’re here. So what do we do? I’ve been driving in this part of Colorado since I was old enough to drive and this is the first animal ” besides a chipmunk when I was 17 ” that I’ve ever hit. I see deer and elk all the time on the side of the road. I keep my eyes open for them.
The night I hit the elk I wasn’t speeding, and the speed limit on that section of Highway 82 is 55 mph. Authorities say slower speed limits can help in wildlife and vehicle collisions. It’s ironic as we build more and more highways made for speed.
Nowadays, I seem to be among the minority that slows ” albeit to 55 or so in a 65-mph zone ” and pays extra attention between those “wildlife on highway” warning signs on Highway 82 east of Carbondale. Just the other night, as cars whizzed past me, I saw a cow elk standing parallel to the highway, about a foot from the asphalt.
But vehicle makes, seat belts, population growth and speed limits aside, I now have a lifelong bond with that elk. At the emergency room, I was shaking glass out of my hair when a big clump of light brown elk hair fell to my feet. I picked it up, and I put it in a little bag. He’s a part of me now.
And now, when I think about that elk, I am thankful to him for sparing my life ” and I promise to watch even closer for his kin along the road.
Post Independent staff writer Carrie Click’s column appears on Tuesdays. She may be reached at 945-8515, ext. 518, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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