A cougar stands over its prey.
Brian Kertson/Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
A cougar stands over its prey.

Each year deer cause 1.2 million vehicle collisions in the U.S., triggering more than 200 deaths, some 29,000 injuries and $1.66 billion in costs associated with vehicle damage, medical bills, and road cleanup.

These staggering figures are in part because deer’s natural predators — large carnivores such as wolves and cougars — have declined in population, leaving large ungulates like deer to reproduce mostly unchecked.

A team including University of Washington’s Laura Prugh, an assistant professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, has for the first time begun to quantify the economic and social impact of bringing back large carnivores. Using cougars and their value in reducing deer-vehicle collisions as a case study, the researchers found that within 30 years of cougars recolonizing the Eastern U.S., large cats could thin deer populations and reduce vehicle collisions by 22 percent — each year preventing five human fatalities, 680 injuries and avoiding costs of $50 million.

The study is published online this week in the journal Conservation Letters. The student-led project was initiated during a community ecology class Prugh taught in 2014 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Lead author Sophie Gilbert, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Alberta, will start in the fall as an assistant professor at the University of Idaho.

Read more at UW Today »