JACKSON, Wyo. — The moose came out of nowhere.
On New Year's Eve, Vicky O'Donaghue, owner of Jackson Hole Driving Academy, was in her car on Broadway near the Virginian. The road was icy, so, being an expert in safe driving, she had reducing her speed to 25 mph in a 35 mph zone.
But that wasn't enough to prevent the collision. When a moose ran out and her car hit it, the impact injured the animal so badly it had to be euthanized.
The experience devastated O'Donnaghue, an animal lover who had vowed, she said, that she would never be one to strike an animal on the road.
"I used to judge other people who hit animals," she said. "I thought they were speeding or not paying attention. I learned a lot. It can happen to anyone."
The numbers bear her out: It really can happen to anyone. Motorists strike and kill an average of 114 mule deer, 36 elk and 15 moose each year on Teton County roads, according to numbers compiled by the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation and previously reported in the News&Guide.
The foundation, which combined its own road kill statistics with data from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wyoming Department of Transportation and Nature Mapping Jackson Hole, found that from 1990 to 2012 more than 2,600 deer, nearly 750 elk and more than 350 moose were struck by drivers on county roads.
Not surprisingly, the foundation's road kill hotline, 734-9454, is busy.
"People call the hotline every day or two," said Lydia Dixon, the foundation's executive director.
The reports involve birds and a variety of smaller mammals as well as large ungulates.
"It's raccoons and possums, too, animals (people) don't usually think about," she said.
While animal-vehicle collisions happen during any season, fall migration makes this an extra risky period. It's the time when elk, for example, head for winter range on the National Elk Refuge and South Park Feedground.
As snow accumulates at higher elevations "lots of game are moving down to the valley floor," said Mark Gocke, a spokesman for Wyoming Game and Fish.
And when snow piles up into walls alongside roads, he said, animals will be less inclined to get off the road.
"That can be problematic as well," Gocke said.
In general, he said, "it's a particularly good time for folks to be aware and to slow down, particularly at dawn and dusk and at night."
Moose are active right now with the bulls in rut, Gocke said. Game and Fish has problems with them getting caught in hammocks and Christmas decorations and also crossing the road more.
Gocke is not without sympathy for motorists who are driving responsibly and encounter a moose. He recalls being on a curvy area of the Village Road before speed reduction signs were put up. The minivan with Missouri plates in front of him braked suddenly, and when Gocke stopped he could see a bull moose in other vehicles' headlights.
"They did a great job of missing it," he said. "I had to put myself in their position. They're probably not used to seeing moose."
Moose can surprise even those Jackson Hole residents accustomed to seeing them.
"They're big, dark animals," Gocke said. "They're just hard to see."
O'Donaghue tells her driving students to scan the roadsides for wildlife and to never tailgate. During the snow-and-ice time of year, her advice is to triple or quadruple the distance between your car and the vehicle ahead and to slow down by 5 to 10 mph or more when necessary on slick roads or when visibility is poor.
She advises drivers to not swerve to avoid an animal unless they're sure they can safely stop their car.
Yet swerving and stopping aren't always options for drivers. Cynthia Wiley was heading north on Highway 89 one night, about a half mile from her Hog Island home. She was going 55 mph, the posted speed limit, and struck a deer.
"It came out of nowhere and hit the front end of the side of the car," she said. Because there were cars behind her, she couldn't stop, she said, and "there was no way I could have swerved or avoided hitting it. I felt awful."
WYDOT has about $3.2 million in its budget to build six wildlife underpasses south of Jackson, perhaps starting in 2017 in conjunction with other projects.
The Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation has been working since 1994 to reduce road kill incidents through its Give Wildlife a Brake program. It has purchased portable speed alert signs, giving two to Grand Teton National Park and the others to WYDOT to post in high-danger areas.
The foundation also funded two fixed radar speed signs for Highway 390, a death trap for moose in recent years, to warn drivers when they are exceeding the speed limit.
The signs are in addition to other measures, including safe-driving brochures for rental car companies to give out to Jackson Hole visitors. About 16,500 were distributed between May and September this year, Dixon said.
The speed signs "are a really effective way to get people to slow down," Dixon said. "But we still have road kills. The problem doesn't seem to be going away. The more we can do to increase awareness, the better."
Everyone needs to pay attention, Gocke said.
"We all need reminders," Gocke said. "It pays to give yourself an extra 10 minutes wherever you're going."
Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com
JENNIFER DORSEY, Jackson Hole News & Guide