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Residents ask officials to increase safety

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By Elizabeth Troutman

Oldham County High School senior Megan Lucas was a passenger in a vehicle that struck a deer and collided with a semi-truck Nov. 23 on Interstate 71 near Buckner. Her death has prompted local residents to lobby for safety improvements along I-71 in Oldham County, where dozens of deer graze between the northbound and southbound lanes. There have been 32 deer-related collisions reported in Oldham County in 2007, but last month alone, transportation workers picked up 60 deer carcasses along Oldham County roadways.

Deer carcasses lying along Interstate 71 serve as a warning to travelers that the roadway is a heavily traveled deer crossing.

And many deer - 60 picked up by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet in Oldham County last month - fail to make it to the other side.

Heather Smith of La Grange recently struck a deer at about 5 a.m. on her way home from working a night shift at the Chevron in Crestwood.

Smith admits she was startled by the crash, especially since she didn't see the deer until it was too late.

"It was smashed all over the road," Smith said.

But it wasn't a sense of danger that she remembers from hitting the deer - it was the dread of dealing with the damage. The deer collided with the side of her mom's Dodge Stratus, which she said was totaled after the crash.

"Your insurance goes up," Smith said. "That's what gets me."

As of Nov. 30, there have been 32 crashes in Oldham County this year involving deer, including a fatal crash on I-71 Nov. 23.

Officials from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet say they've received several calls from Oldham County drivers since Nov. 23, when 17-year-old Megan Lucas died in a crash on I-71 after her friend's car struck a deer, causing the vehicle to collide with a semi-truck.

According to Kentucky State Police, deer caused 2,928 wrecks in 2006, including 52 in Oldham County.

Andrea Clifford, a public information officer for the state transportation cabinet, said state engineers could research the possibility of building a fence along I-71 or removing the natural habitat inside the median. But any construction along the highway would be reviewed by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife to consider environmental consequences, she said.

Transportation officials could post additional signs to warn motorists of deer if research shows a high concentration of deer in a specific section of the highway, Clifford said. There are three yellow signs with a deer silhouette posted between Buckner and La Grange.

"This is something we've reviewed in the past," Clifford said. "If its something Oldham County wants to look into again, its something we're willing to do."

If members of Oldham County Fiscal Court present a proposal to improve safety on I-71, Clifford said state officials would look into implementation. Otherwise, officials from the transportation cabinet are not considering any changes to the interstate in response to the Nov. 23 crash.

Maj. David Casey, assistant director of law enforcement for KDFW, said as long as deer are around, they are going to cross the road. Rather than a fence, he recommends clearing the county's deer population.

In Oldham County, hunters enjoy unlimited antlerless deer harvest. This year, hunters have harvested 955 deer in Oldham County.

But in a rural-suburban landscape, mass hunting ground is scarce. Casey said much of the land in Oldham County is suburban, where hunting is illegal. The remaining property, consisting of large plots for farming, is owned by only a few who hunt regularly.

"Deer will live and thrive on the type of lots that Oldham County has," Casey said.

If residents want to get rid of deer, Casey suggests property owners open their land to hunters and suggests county officials promote deer season.

"Hunting is the number one - and only - way to control deer population," Casey said. "The easiest thing for the county to do is promote hunting."

More than 500,000 deer live - and breed - in Kentucky. Anderson County has the state's highest deer population, with an estimated 47 deer per square mile. Oldham County averages about 35 deer per square mile, but KDFW officials aim to keep population down to 20 per square mile.

Tina Brunjes, big game program coordinator for KDFW, calls Oldham County a 'high-quality' habitat for deer because of the area's proximity to the Ohio River.

In December 2006, KDFW employees sprayed the shoulders along I-71 in Oldham County with deer deterrent, which Brunjes said was unsuccessful. She said most solutions, including fences or underpasses for deer, are expensive and inefficient.

Though the deer population has remained stagnant in Oldham County for the past few years, Brunjes said she hopes to see it drop. She encourages county officials to promote hunting, but also said hunting in the median is illegal without special permission from the state.

"It's certainly a thorny issue for us and the transportation cabinet," Brunjes said. "It's one of those things that's there's not a lot that can be done - it's going to take some thinking outside the box."

The U.S. Department of Highways estimates 100 people are killed annually in deer-related crashes. The average insurance claim for property damage caused by a deer collision is $2,000.

KSP Lt. Phil Crumpton said he's pulled deer off windshields after crashes while patrolling local roadways. He's watched drivers lose control and cars overturn as drivers swerve to avoid hitting a deer.

The best way for drivers to prevent a deer collision is to stay focused on the road, which allows for more response time. He sees drivers talking on cell phones, adjusting radios and even reading books while driving.

"A lot of people are getting in the habit of not paying attention when they drive," said Crumpton.

Crumpton recommends steering away from deer only when there is no other traffic. Most crashes are caused when a driver stops suddenly or steer away from an animal, putting other drivers in danger.

Clifford said state highway engineers considered building a fence to block the deer from I-71 in 2003. Clifford said former Oldham County Judge-Executive Mary Ellen Kinser communicated with state engineers about the proposal.

Kinser said Tuesday she heard about the state's plans to build an eight-foot fence years ago at a Kentuckiana Regional Planning and Development Agency meeting in Louisville.

She argued against the fence at the time, and discussion of the fence was never put in writing. She said Tuesday she thought deer would jump the fence.

Magistrate Rick Rash said the court avoided the state's initiative based on costs.

"It was something we just shied away from," Rash said.

Magistrate Bob Deibel said the idea was never on an agenda or discussed by members of the fiscal court.

In Florida, the state transportation cabinet erected eight-foot fences along state highways to prevent the Florida Panther and other wildlife from crossing I-75. The fencing runs along 40 miles of 'Alligator Ally' in the Everglades.

But Clifford said blocking the deer is not always the best

solution.

As for plowing the habitat in an 11-mile median between the northbound and southbound lanes of I-71 in Oldham County, there would be environmental consequences, Clifford said. The 40-acre median maintains natural features including a creek that could be removed to eliminate the deer habitat. But it won't prevent deer from crossing the road, Clifford said.

November marks peak deer hunting season, and deer are on the move - most often at dusk and dawn during the mating season, Casey said.

"The deer have to go somewhere," Clifford said.

Crumpton said even if the deer population is reduced, Kentuckians must share the land roadways cross with wildlife.

"We're never going to be able to totally stop it because Kentucky is a rural state," Crumpton said.

E-mail us about this story at: elizabeth@oldhamera.com.