British Columbia

Big cats could be big help to deer-vehicle collisions, researcher says

Believe it or not, the deer is the deadliest mammal in the U.S., causing auto accidents claiming about 200 lives each year. A researcher says the return of cougars to areas they were wiped out from could lower that number.

Cougars, by killing deer, could reduce automobile accidents claiming 200 lives in the U.S. per year

Could growing cougar populations cut down on accidents between vehicles and deer? A University of Washington researcher thinks so. (iStock)

Highway safety and the hunting and culling of large predators are controversial topics in B.C. and both are addressed, in an unusual way, by a University of Washington study on cougars and deer.

Assistant professor Laura Prugh co-authored a study in the journal Conservation Letters that found cougars could save lives on the highway by hunting deer.

The study says deer actually kill more people in the U.S. than any other mammal because they cause car accidents claiming approximately 200 lives each year.

Prugh found deer-vehicle collisions have grown 50 per cent over the past 25 years, while accidents between vehicles have gone down.

"It's a major problem, especially in the eastern U.S. where there's a lot of people and a real explosion in the deer population, in part because there are no large predators to keep their populations in check," Prugh told All Points West host Robyn Burns.

Prugh says cougars are actually re-establishing new populations in the Midwest and eastern U.S., and expansion in Canada might happen within a few decades.

In South Dakota, for instance, cougars have re-established themselves in some counties and not others, Prugh says. Rising deer-vehicle collision rates flattened out in counties with cougars but not counties without them.

"People have a real inherent fear of large carnivores, and we wanted to look at whether they might have some real, tangible benefits to people," Prugh said.

"What we're hoping is that findings like this might sort of predispose the public to be a little more favourable towards having them around."

With files from CBC Radio One's All Points West

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Researcher says more cougars could help reduce auto accidents