MUNDS PARK - The female elk calf bellows and kicks wildly within a cage trap as Jeff Gagnon and his team attempt to place a thick white tracking collar around its neck.
Subdued with ropes and a hood and then collared, the calf runs free and heads into the pines near Interstate 17 south of Flagstaff.
Earlier and a few miles away, two other elk got similar treatment.
"It was a great trapping day," Gagnon said.
He and his crew from the Arizona Game and Fish Department have been kicked, head-butted and dragged through the mud over the past few years to equip dozens of elk with GPS equipment. But they say the payoff will be worth it: Data on elk movements will be collected that will help state officials construct crossings to reduce damaging and potentially deadly encounters with vehicles.
"Once we saw that we could make a difference and actually cut down on elk-vehicle collisions and let them cross the highway as well, that was the answer to all the problems," said Gagnon, a Game and Fish research biologist.
There were at least 40 collisions with elk on I-17 in a one-year period ending in May, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation. Those crashes are concentrated where the interstate climbs out of the Verde Valley and through the forest south of Flagstaff.
On average, a collision with an elk costs $17,483, including vehicle repair, towing, accident investigation, lost hunting value and carcass removal, according to the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University.
That has a lot to do with the size of an elk. A bull can weigh up to 1,200 pounds.
Gagnon said he's more concerned about keeping people safe.
"We've had fatalities; people have hit elk and died," he said. "It can affect you, it can affect someone you love, it can cause all kinds of problems."
Game and Fish will use data from the elk collars to recommend where ADOT should build fences, overpasses and underpasses to channel big game as the department expands I-17 over the next 20 years. The data will be available in the next two to three years, Gagnon said.
Rob Wingman, a Flagstaff-based public information officer for ADOT, said he believes the wildlife crossings will significantly decrease accidents.
"It cuts down on the collisions between people and animals, and it allows the animals to migrate," Wingman said. "Safety is the biggest concern for ADOT."
Rob Nelson, a wildlife specialist on the elk-tracking team, said large highways and interstates often prevent elk and other animals from reaching food sources and from traveling to mate, which leads to inbreeding. Wildlife crossings allow elk and smaller animals to travel over wider areas safely, he said.
"If you can create some kind of passageway, there's genetic flow and populations aren't isolated," Nelson said. "Plus you have the benefit of preventing damage to vehicles and human loss, so I think it's a win-win."
While other states are studying or building wildlife crossings, Arizona's use of GPS technology to track elk is revolutionary, according to Rob Ament, road ecology program manager for the Western Transportation Institute.
"Arizona is one of the leading states in the country," Ament said. "They're dealing with both animal conservation and motorist safety."
Ament said wildlife crossings are among the most effective ways to protect motorists and wildlife.
"It's biologically effective because it reduces the number of animals being hit and allows for ecological connectivity," Ament said. "At the same time it's great for motorist safety because it reduces crashes."
Kim Crumbo, conservation director for the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, said the Game and Fish program is a good start, though he recommended even more research into ways to protect wildlife.
"When you start losing species you start losing genetic diversity," Crumbo said. "This is a good step and it's good to see they're moving forward."
Gagnon, whose team will continue its work over the next several years, said he's confident the research will make a difference.
"I think it will be a very successful project and that we'll see the safer highways," he said.