Park City wildlife carnage: After an elk collision, a roadside dismemberment
January 19, 2019
The afternoon of New Year's Day is spectacular in Park City with bluebird conditions for the crowds that arrived for holiday skiing vacations. The roads are dry and traffic is moving without issue on the S.R. 224 entryway even with the community packed.
As drivers head in and out of Park City on the state highway, passing the McPolin Farm, only some likely notice two men on the side of the road. The men are studying the carcass of a large elk. The animal was a victim of a collision with a vehicle. Another elk carcass, also a collision victim, is almost directly across S.R. 224 from the one Troy Horman, a plumber from Wanship, and the other man, who declines to be identified, are preparing to remove.
The carnage belies the holiday spirit that has swept through Park City with fine early-season skiing conditions for Parkites and the visitors. Elk are one of the grandest animals that inhabit the area's sliver of the Wasatch Mountains, and sightings are memorable. They are larger than deer, more agile than moose. They also seem to be elusive at many times even as people in Park City report sightings of deer and moose.
The two men, gloved and dressed in gear designed for the outdoors, approach the first carcass. Horman lifts the head while the other man grabs the legs. They drag the carcass toward Horman's truck, which is outfitted with a hand-cranked winch system designed to load and unload plumbing equipment. The winch can be used to recover roadkill like the elk as well.
It is clear the animal is too tall to fit in the bed of the truck. Horman grabs a battery-powered saw. The whirring sound of the saw starts as Horman leans over the carcass. He moves the blade toward the joint in one of the animal's front legs. It takes less than 10 seconds for him to cut through the flesh and bone as the bottom part of the leg comes off. Horman sets the detached leg aside. The other front leg is sawed off with the same precision. The carcass appears to be largely frozen, allowing clean cuts instead of the bloodiness that may have made the scene even more gruesome at another time of year. The back legs are then taken off, leaving the carcass on the side of the road with four stumps where the legs were just minutes ago.
The deaths of the two elk on S.R. 224 are evidence of the danger — for people and the animals — that has mounted for decades on Park City-area roads. As the population of the Park City area boomed starting in the 1990s, development overtook wildlife habitat, from Summit Park to the upper elevations of Deer Valley to Quinn's Junction. And roads were built or expanded, notably S.R. 224 between Kimball Junction and the Park City limits, creating what activists see as a hazardous situation for drivers and the wildlife that often ends with the near-immediate death of an animal in a collision or injuries that are so bad they must be put down when the authorities arrive.
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"We were just heartbroken it would go to waste. It's a bad thing to begin with. Nobody wins. The animal's dead. People are out of a car," Horman later said.
An especially grim sight
The S.R. 224 corridor, the primary route into and out of Park City from the Salt Lake Valley, passes heavily developed Kimball Junction and then moves through the population center of Summit County in the Snyderville Basin before reaching the bucolic McPolin Farm. The farm, a swath of open space acquired by City Hall in the 1990s in an effort to protect the entryway from what many contend is a haphazard development pattern at Kimball Junction, has long been one of the places in Park City where wildlife sightings are frequently reported. Motorists, hikers, bicyclists and cross-country skiers may see moose, elk or deer against the picturesque mountain backdrop.
The drivers and the recreation lovers also may notice the roadkill along the state highway. Carcasses are seen on a reasonably frequent basis between Kimball Junction and Park City. It always seems to be an especially grim sight when a carcass is spotted on the stretch of S.R. 224 outside the McPolin Farm. The property, decades ago, was a dairy farm. It was a place where cattle safely grazed without risk from automobiles.
The land remains attractive to the wildlife even with the recreation activity and the nearby highway. A moose sighting may be reported to the police as the animal appears to be readying to cross S.R. 224 toward the farm, or a deer may be preparing to attempt the same hazardous crossing on its way to the open space.
According to the Utah Department of Transportation, crews in 2018 responded to 46 collisions between drivers and wildlife on the stretch of S.R. 224 between Kimball Junction and the intersection with S.R. 248, a section of road that includes the portion outside the McPolin Farm as well as the route through the Snyderville Basin. Of the 46 collisions that involved a UDOT response, 42 were between a driver and a deer. Elk were hit in two of the collisions while drivers ran into moose in the other two cases, the statistics show. The numbers along the S.R. 224 entryway far exceeded those on the S.R. 248 corridor between the U.S. 40 interchange and the intersection with S.R. 224. Ten collisions, all involving deer, were reported on the S.R. 248 corridor during the same period. The entryway numbers do not include animals that were hit by a driver and survived or were hit, ambled away and later died from the injuries.
There has not been widespread discussion about the prospects of installing S.R. 224 safety measures that would be designed to reduce the number of collisions. City Hall staffers expect to request funding in the next municipal budget for a study of wildlife migration patterns and options to connect habitat. Park City officials in the spring of 2017, meanwhile, received a request through a neighborhood traffic program for a wildlife crossing on S.R. 224. The request remains under evaluation.
State transportation officials in December opened a wildlife bridge spanning Interstate 80 in the Snyderville Basin. It is meant to shrink the number of accidents involving animals on the busy route between the Park City area and the Salt Lake Valley. The project also includes three miles of fences on both sides of the interstate intended to guide the animals toward the bridge. Even as officials monitor the results of the wildlife bridge on the interstate, it seems unlikely there will be an imminent move toward similar measures along S.R. 224. The traffic is not as heavy and the state highway's footprint — essentially the distance that an animal must travel to cross the road — is not as wide as that of the interstate.
Jay Randall, a Park City Police Department sergeant, sees S.R. 224 as the most hazardous of the roads inside the city limits for wildlife. The speed limit of 45 mph, rising to 55 mph as the road passes the McPolin Farm, is one of the factors leading to his assessment. The four-lane width and the increase in traffic over the years are others. He also said a stream on the edge of the McPolin Farm acreage, close to the state highway, draws wildlife to drink in close proximity to the road.
The Police Department and the Utah Highway Patrol share jurisdiction along the stretch of S.R. 224 inside the Park City limits, and it is the Police Department that is oftentimes the responding agency when a collision with wildlife is reported. The officers evaluate the people in the vehicles, assess the damage and control the traffic as other drivers pass the scene. They also must address the animals. The wildlife killed on impact needs to be moved out of the roadway. The animals that survive but are badly injured are put down at the scene, a task that an officer carries out as part of the police duties.
In his seven years with the agency, Randall said, he has put down approximately 80 animals after collisions with vehicles across the city. They were mostly deer. Others were elk, rabbits or porcupines. An officer checks whether an animal is mobile after a collision and looks for clear evidence the animal suffered an injury that will likely lead to death. Randall said the animals that must be killed are put down with one or two gunshots, point blank to the head. The officers use their duty weapons — a .9 mm Glock pistol or an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle — to deliver the fatal shots.
"Most officers feel the same as the general public. We don't enjoy putting it down," Randall said.
Roses of respect
Horman and the other man on S.R. 224 on New Year's Day move the elk carcass into a position where it can be loaded more easily into the truck. Horman is a big-game hunter and once was a meat cutter in high school. He is accustomed to handling the carcass of an elk or deer. The winch system is attached to the neck and the carcass is put on a ramp from the ground to the truck bed. The winch makes a clicking noise as the animal is slowly pulled toward the truck bed.
"No matter how ugly it is, it is so much easier than any other choice," Horman says as the head of the carcass reaches the truck bed.
Horman's truck is just feet away from a sign cautioning drivers of frequent wildlife crossings for the next two miles, an inbound stretch of S.R. 224 that passes the rest of the land of the McPolin Farm and then the Richards Ranch, another tract of open space owned by City Hall.
State law forbids someone from taking roadkill carcasses of protected species like deer, elk, moose and mountain lions without the proper permit. The person with Horman obtained permits from the state Division of Wildlife Resources to collect a carcass. Colloquially referred to as salvage tags and officially known as donation slips, they allow someone to take possession of a roadkill carcass. The Division of Wildlife Resources sends a representative to the scene to issue the donation slips. The other person receives approval for the elk that is already in the truck and for the carcass across the state highway.
The elk killed along S.R. 224 around New Year's were both cows, probably 2 or 3 years old. Horman considers them to be medium in size. He was told the elk were both hit at between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. on New Year's Day. The drivers apparently left without police action, he says. Someone stopped prior to his arrival, though, to place roses on the midsection of each of the carcasses, a touch of respect for the dead animals. The roses hardly disguise the violent death the animals suffered and, from afar, could be mistaken for blood.
The elk carcasses are butchered just hours after Horman collects them. He says the two elk, combined, produced approximately 350 pounds of meat for human consumption. Another 100 pounds could be turned into food for dogs, he says. He plans to distribute the meat to friends and family members. The meat can be served as a steak or a roast, or it could be ground into sausage. Horman prefers elk over beef, saying it is leaner and healthier than meat from a cow.
Horman said later other parts of the elk also can be used, describing that the hides may be tanned and made into purses. The hair is good for creating fly-fishing ties. Bones become broth ingredients or are given to dogs. He said he attempts to "use every bit of the animal we can."
"That gives a little sunshine to an otherwise tragic situation," he said, adding, "It makes use of something that would otherwise go to waste."