BLANDING — Every weekday morning, Derek Bethea drives from his home in Blanding to Monticello, where he works as a therapist at the San Juan County jail. His route — State Highway 191, which runs north-south along the eastern edge of the state — is not prone to traffic. But it can be treacherous.
That’s because it intersects with another route that is heavily trafficked. Just south of Monticello, where the Abajo Mountains give way to fertile farmland, mule deer cross the highway every day. They do so at dawn and dusk, right when Bethea makes his commute. He’s learned the hard way to slow down and scan the highway for deer: over the past 20 years he’s hit four of them while driving this stretch of road.
“Deer are like rats here. You hit ‘em all the time and they cause all sorts of money issues,” he said.
In fact, Bethea says he doesn’t know anyone who lives in Blanding or Monticello who hasn’thit a deer.
“It’s not a matter of if,” he added. ”It’s a matter of when.”
The highway between Blanding and Monticello is a hotspot for wildlife collisions, according to wildlife biologist Patricia Cramer. Many deer live in the mountains until it snows, and then move into the adjacent lowlands. Others cross the road for food throughout the year.
“It’s one of the most dangerous stretches of road you can drive in the state,” Cramer said.
More than 100 deer are killed by cars each year between Blanding and Monticello, statistics from the Utah Department of Transportation show. UDOT has been working to bring that number down for years. The department built a crossing structure south of Monticello in 2016, and Cramer installed video cameras to monitor it.
“That crossing structure has, on average, deer move through it 47 times per day,” she said. “It’s just incredible.”
In terms of crossings, the structure is the most successful in the state. But it didn’t bring the number of accidents between Blanding and Monticello down. UDOT statistics show there have been at least two injuries and one death due to deer on that stretch of highway since 2016. And the number of reported deer hits has actually gone up.
Cramer says the explanation is simple: One crossing isn’t enough.
UDOT put in fencing to channel the animals into the crossing. But not all of them found it. Instead, over 1,000 deer went around the fence each year, according to Cramer.
“We created a problem in that we only had one wildlife crossing for them in a 3-mile stretch,” Cramer said.
To fix that problem, UDOT is building three new crossings south of the existing structure. Construction started this summer and will be finished by the end of the year, project manager Sam Harwick said.
“We came up with three because there’s a mile, mile-and-a-half, between each crossing,” Harwick said. “We seem to have more success with wildlife crossing under a structure if they’re that close.”
On a recent afternoon, workers smoothed out dirt under one crossing with a big yellow crane, fixing the drainage.
“The last thing we want is any kind of water draining into the wildlife crossing, because if it freezes and creates ice and a deer slips on it, it’s not good for them,” said J.D. Woodard, an inspector with UDOT.
Once the crossings are complete, workers will cut holes in the wildlife fencing and extend it so that it connects with the crossings.
The total cost of the project is over $3 million. But most of that money came from the federal government, which sets aside funding for public safety projects. Harwick says the state paid less than 10% of the cost, so it’s a good deal for UDOT — and taxpayers.
“You know, if we can save one human life, we can’t even put a price tag on that,” he said.
But researchers at Utah State University have put a price tag on the cost of a deer collision. In 2008, they found that each deer hit cost approximately $3,500, which is almost $4,000 in today’s dollars.
Most of that expense is the vehicle repair cost. Hitting a deer typically causes between $2,000 and $8,000 of damage, said Alan Rogers, who owns the only body-shop in Monticello.
On a recent morning, Rogers had a car in his shop that hit a deer head on. The front grill is gone, and the radiator is covered in dried blood. The radio played as Rogers picked chunks of deer fat off the car.
“This one kind of juiced, you know. It kind of juiced out,” he said.
Rogers says almost half of the cars he fixes are damaged by wildlife collisions, so he’s concerned about how the additional deer crossings will affect his business.
“It won’t be good for me,” Rogers says. “It’s good for the deer. But it could be devastating [for me], right?”
Rogers acknowledges he’s likely the only one benefitting from the collisions. And he says the number of deer hits has gone down in the past decade, which he attributes to a shrinking deer population.
But for residents like Derek Bethea, the crossings could mean the difference between life and death. Or at least, they could keep his insurance premiums from going up.
“Having these tunnels is going to help a ton. Just with the aggravation of hitting deer,” he said. “So I’m glad they did it.”
UDOT expects the crossings will be completed early this month. No further crossings are currently planned for the Monticello area.