By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - The number of deer and other large animals killed or injured by California motorists jumped 20 percent in 2016 in accidents that killed five people, led drivers to put themselves in harm's way trying to save the animals, and cost society about $276 million, a new study shows.
About 7,400 animals were killed or injured in collisions last year, up from 5950 in 2015, the first year that the UC Davis Center for Road Ecology began using data from the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to track wildlife collisions and their costs.
"The CHP is saying people are very upset, concerned and even putting themselves in harm's way to ensure that injured animals are taken care of," said Fraser Shilling, co-director of the UC Davis Road Ecology Center and the report's co-author. "They find people crying and cradling the animal, people stopping traffic around the animal."
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According to the report, large wild animals involved in traffic incidents in 2016 included 6,119 mule deer, 377 coyotes, 135 black bears, 44 elk, 43 mountain lions and 21 wild pigs. About 2700 of the animals died.
In 2015, vehicles struck 5408 mule deer, 361 coyotes and 89 black bears according to the data, which Shilling said represents very conservative estimates.
The increase was mostly driven by a jump in deer population after the end of California's five-year drought, Shilling said.
People are also frequently injured in these crashes, the report showed. In 2016, 285 people suffered minor injuries in collisions involving large wild animals, up from 235 in 2015, the report showed. Sixty-two people received major injuries in the crashes in 2016, up from 44 the prior year. Five people were killed both years.
Using cost estimates from insurance companies, Shilling and his co-authors calculated that the total cost to California of all of the incidents in 2016 was $276 million, up from about $225 million the year before.
He compared those costs with the price of building fencing and animal crossings along the roads where many of the animal-involved collisions take place and concluded that, although expensive, such structures would pay for themselves within a couple of years.
On I-280 near San Francisco, for example, building fences along a 23-mile stretch where more than 400 animal-involved accidents took place over the past two years would cost $4.6 million, Shilling estimated.
But the toll on people, animals and property of those accidents totaled $20 million, he said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein)