OLYMPIA – If you're approaching Sequim on Highway 101 and you see a flashing road sign marked "ELK X-ING," you'd be well advised to slow down.
A herd of Roosevelt elk may be crossing the highway just ahead.
The flashing signs, the first of which was activated last month, are triggered by radio collars attached to eight elk in the 81-member herd, lighting up whenever they are within a quarter mile of the highway.
In the next few months, a total of six radio-activated warning signs are expected to be up and running along a three-mile stretch of Highway 101 where the resident Dungeness elk herd regularly crosses to reach the northern end of its range.
The new warning system is part of a novel effort by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to reduce the number of accidents involving motorists and jaywalking elk.
Since 1994, more than a dozen elk have died after being hit by vehicles in the area, said Shelly Ament, the WDFW wildlife biologist who is spearheading the project. Although no people have been seriously injured, state and local officials are eager to find a solution to the problem – especially since the completion of the Sequim Bypass last fall, which has speeded up traffic through the area.
According to the City of Sequim, as many as 10,000 vehicles per day pass through the area during the summer travel season on the Olympic Peninsula.
"This is a safety issue for both people and for elk," said Ament, who lives in Sequim and has observed the problem first-hand. "Drivers don't seem to pay much attention to the standard elk-crossing signs that have been up since 1996, and we're losing more elk every year. We had to find some way to let the drivers know the elk were headed their way."
Part of the solution came in the form of a $75,000 federal transportation grant, which is paying for the cost of collaring the elk, building and installing the radio-activated signs and purchasing equipment necessary to monitor the herd. Ament, who designed the project and applied for the grant, has received strong support from local organizations, including the Sequim Elk Habitat Committee, a local organization formed by WDFW to find a solution to the safety problem posed by elk on the highway.
Several members of the committee assisted WDFW biologists and enforcement officers last year in attaching the radio collars to the elk. A number of other organizations helped out too, including the Point No Point Treaty Tribes, the Makah Tribe, the KBH Archers and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
The Sequim Police Department also provided traffic control during the elk capture and the local Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe is paying for the cost of providing power to one of the warning signs. WSDOT is providing the technical support to build and install the signs.
"We really appreciate all the help we've received on this project," said Ament, noting that the animal-activated warning system she designed may be the only one like it in the country. "The real test is whether the signs get people to actually slow down."
Jack Smith, regional WDFW wildlife manager, noted that the new highway signs are just one facet of the agency's efforts to manage the elk herd, which has been growing steadily in recent years. In addition, the agency is working to improve forage lands on the south side of the highway – not only to keep the elk out of traffic but to keep them away from private farms in Happy Valley where they have caused crop damage.
Hunting is allowed during certain times of the year to help control the size of the herd, but Smith sees a continual challenge in managing an elk population that is growing along with the area's human population.
"This is the healthiest elk herd on the Olympic Peninsula and these animals are a terrific wildlife resource for our state," Smith said. "But they also require some work, and right now we are working to keep people and elk from running into problems on Highway 101."