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Motorists hitting deer in record numbers

| October 4, 2006 12:00 AM

By GWEN ALBERS Western News Reporter

Motorists for a 10th year in a row are expected to set a record number for deer kills on Libby roadways.

The number of dead whitetails as of Monday had surpassed the number killed by Oct. 1 one year ago. And with the mating season approaching, and deer looking for food and water in low-lying areas, the chances of hitting a deer are expected to increase.

"The next 45 days is going to be the most significant and intense period of movement," said Van Swearingen, supervisor for the Montana Department of Transportation in Libby. "They come out of nowhere and they are usually on a dead run."

Libby road workers in 2005 scooped up a record 340 dead whitetails, or about 5.7 percent of the deer killed in Montana, Swearingen said. At the current rate, it looks like that number will increase to 360 to 370 for this year.

"It's been 275 days since Jan. 1," he said Monday. "I picked up number 279 today. That's one per day, every day within a 5-mile perimeter of Libby."

In 2005, the 279 dead deer mark was reached on Nov. 2.

Most of the deer are hit along Highway 2 between Beck's Montana Cafe west of Libby and Whiskey Hill east of town, and four miles north of Libby along Highway 37. Secondary roads with high deer kills include Farm to Market and Kootenai River roads.

There's probably another 15 to 20 percent more deer that are hit but don't die along roadways, plus Libby Food Pantry picks up 30 to 40 annually, Swearingen said.

More dead deer costs the state's taxpayers more money.

"The man-hours, trucks, and miles (to clean up deer) is a sizable chunk of change," Swearingen said. "We're off spending in excess of a thousand hours a year doing this and not working on the roads."

More dead deer also means more business at Denny's Auto Body on Education Way. Eighty percent of the vehicles repaired are damaged by wildlife, said owner Denny Quinn. The average cost is $3,000 per rig.

"We've been busy," said Quinn. "It's about a month wait (to have repairs made)."

Dick Buti, co-owner of Gene's Body Shop at 115 E. Second St., repairs about 150 cars annually due to deer damage.

"We've kept track over the last 10 to 15 years. One year we had 78 and the next 98," Buti said. "It kept going up until the big snow in 1996. Then it dropped off because the population was down."

"The last 10 years, it's increased," he continued. "One year we had 178. That was about the highest."

And for Tom Wood, president of First National Insurance of Montana in Libby, Monday morning was spent processing insurance claims thanks to deer.

"I can tell you the first four phone calls I got this morning were deer hits. They were just from this weekend," Wood said.

He estimates he process about 100 claims annually from deer being hit. Insurance rates tend to increase when deer are hit.

"Claims are much higher," Wood said. "They used to be $300 to $400, but now they're a minimum of $1,500 to $2,000."

Swearingen blames the increased kill on more deer.

"Whitetails have enjoyed all the logging. It opens the wilderness and provides more of a food source," he said.

In addition, recent milder winters has meant a lower mortality rate,

Slowing down while driving, particularly at night, is the best way to avoid a deer, Swearingen said.

"These little guys are doing their thing," he said. "They don't know what a highway is. They aren't able to compute 70 mph."