"There's declines in populations throughout the West," said Phil Douglass, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) spokesman. "Utah is one of those states that is trying to do all it can to preserve the mule deer populations to achieve a strong and vibrant population."
The deer crossings were completed in May, and have since been used by 57 deer to cross under the busy interchange. And fall deer migration isn't in full swing yet. "So there is some effective use and it's looking promising," Douglass said.
The Echo Junction crossings are one of two deer crossing projects that were completed by the DWR, the other being Sardine Canyon in Box Elder County, which was completed in the mid-1990s.
The Sardine Canyon deer crossing wasn't as effective, due to nearby fence gaps and its dark, cave-like appearance. Some animals, including deer and elk, are leery of predators that might lurk in long and dark passages.
"So one of our biggest challenges is to try to find ways, either through lighting or bringing them into these tunnels, so they feel safe about going through them," Douglass said.
Once the animals go through the crossings, they see for themselves that they are OK to go into and continue to use them.
To encourage crossing use, the DWR has considered baiting animals with salt licks or the silhouette of an elk or deer to give them the impression another animal is using the crossing and that it's safe.
"The initial use we see is encouraging and so we haven't gone to those extremes yet to bait them," Douglass said.
The roads dissect the large game animals' migration corridors, so the crossings are one way to mitigate the impact.
DWR is looking at reasons for the declining mule deer populations, such as predator numbers, habitat fragmentation and weather patterns.
"You get weather changing from year to year, whether it be a drought year like this year or a heavy winter," Douglass aid. "Typically the animals have been able to adapt to the conditions if they have good habitat. But if they don't have good habitat, it affects their ability to adapt."
Douglass says that the DWR is interested in two things: protecting wildlife resources and public safety.
"So we not only want to save deer, but we also want to save people the expense and hazards of a collision with a big game animal, like a deer or an elk," Douglass said.
The successful crossings potentially give the DWR an opportunity to use the idea on future construction projects to improve wildlife conditions. "So this has statewide implications," Douglass said.