Written by Mark Haynes, External Correspondent
More than 40 years ago, apple pulp and screeching helped save countless mule deer from getting hit by fast traffic on Interstate 80 near Elk Mountain.
During the winter of 1977-1978, John Hyde was a game controller apprentice at the Wyoming Department of Fish and Game and tasked with figuring out how to get deer to use highway lanes still in use today.
“I tasted the tunnels with all sorts of things, including lettuce scraps from the grocery store,” Hyde told Cowboy State Daily. “We found apple pulp to be the best.
“Apple pulp is used everywhere to flavor all kinds of animals. I think because of its sweetness.”
Hyde continued his career of 35 years as a game controller. He is now retired and lives in Lovell.
Underpasses offer hope
When this part of I-80 was built in the early 1970s, Hyde said, it cut through one of the largest deer migration routes in Wyoming. Sturdy 8-foot woven wire fences are built along both sides of the highway to keep deer out of the way.
There are also some underpasses along this stretch, Hyde said, but they were not initially intended as crossings for wildlife. Instead, they were positioned there to allow farmers and ranchers to move equipment between pastures and fields on either side of I-80.
It soon became clear, Hyde said, that the tunnels could also be useful as a way to safely cross deer.
At first, deer would only swarm against fences, he said. Sometimes they injure or kill themselves while trying to cross. Or they may be shocked by traffic when they manage to break through the fences.
“I was patrolling this section of the highway to check for deer deaths, and I saw a lot of them,” Hyde said. “And you’ll see deer by the hundreds just piling on those fences, I’m not sure what to do.”
The trick was to get the deer to use the tunnels.
Surprise, screaming stubborn deer move
Once Hyde and his buddies found out how well the apple pulp attracted deer, the next problem was getting them to actually move through the tunnel.
This was because they had only gathered inside the tunnel to drown themselves in the pulp, but they would not pass to the other side, he said.
Therefore, Wyoming game rangers thought they would give the deer a boost by scaring them.
“We were going up the highway in our truck, and they were there (in the tunnels) eating,” he said. “We’d jump out of the truck, get off the side of the highway and start waving our arms and yelling at them to move.”
But the deer was stubborn.
“It took me a month to six weeks to do that. But eventually, the deer caught on, and they started using the tunnels on their own,” Hyde said.
While those efforts during the 1970s certainly helped, this stretch of I-80 is still troublesome. The section between 247-256 mile centers near Arlington still sees approximately 150 collisions with wildlife annually, according to the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish.
To mitigate this, a wildlife overpass has been planned at Halleck Ridge near Elk Mountain. The start date of the project has not been specified. It will be funded in part by the $10 million wildlife traversal that Governor Mark Gordon has requested and granted by the legislature.
Hyde said that now wildlife bridges have replaced tunnels in many places across the West.
“Now the bridges are back home, so to speak, to the place where it all began – I-80 near Elk Mountain,” he said.