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Deer are just about everywhere in St. Mary’s County, including running in roadways.

An economics class at St. Mary’s College of Maryland took a look this fall at the costs of deer/vehicle collisions as well as a theoretical way to cut down on such accidents.

“Valuation in Environmental and Natural Resource Economics” is an experimental survey and statistics class new to the campus this semester.

Amy Henderson, assistant professor of economics, teaches the upper-level course, which is designed to engage students in applied economic analysis outside the classroom.

“Fortunately, I’ve been able to avoid” hitting a deer, the professor said of hitting a deer. Many drivers are not so lucky.

Maryland ranks among the top 15 states for such collisions, with some 32,000 a year. Henderson’s class estimated there were about 550 deer-vehicle collisions every year in St. Mary’s County, causing approximately $1.65 million in vehicle damages.

“I think it’s probably a reasonable approximation,” Henderson said.

Henderson taught students how to assign value to intangible amenities using advanced statistics coursework, a process called contingent valuation.

The students explored the demand for reducing deer-vehicle collisions in St. Mary’s County, including developing a theoretical plan to construct 8-foot-high fencing made of plastic mesh to prevent deer crossings in high-risk areas. The idea, Henderson said, would be to put up fences along side curves and other low-visibility areas to force deer to cross in more open areas.

Scott McInerney, a senior from Owings, came up with the idea to study deer-vehicle collisions this semester. He said the week before a close friend from home had hit a deer while driving, and told McInerney it was the seventh he had hit since he started driving several years ago.

McInerney, who commutes to St. Mary’s College, said he often sees deer along roadways on the way to campus, especially in a field just north of the college in Park Hall.

“There’s always five or six deer just hanging around,” he said.

He has had many near misses with deer while driving, but has never hit one himself.

“It was more difficult than any other class I’ve taken,” McInerney said. “But, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more out of it.”

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources helped with some of the data collection, he said. They students used focus groups of residents from Leonardtown, Lexington Park and Park Hall to help develop a survey that was mailed to 1,000 randomly selected homes in the county.

“This direct engagement with local residents was crucial in developing a clear, credible and effective final survey instrument,” said Henderson.

One question asked residents their opinion of a one-time tax on county households to fund a deer-fencing project.

Henderson said that based on the 200 responses, households said they would be willing to pay $28.31 to fund the theoretical project. Multiplied by the number of homes in the county, the class statistically analyzed the survey data and concluded that residents placed an estimated $1 million value on the proposal.

McInerney and his classmates presented the project earlier this month to Rebecca Bridgett, St. Mary’s County administrator, George Erichsen, director of public works and transportation, and the county commissioners.

“I think it was received well,” McInerney said.

Erichsen said the public works department as well as State Highway Administration keep track of road kill collected. He said the county does put out advisories and post signs in areas where it finds large numbers of deer vehicle collisions, such as Beachville Road, Steer Horn Neck Road and Baptist Church Road.

He said actually funding the project using tax money would mean it needs to make its way onto a funding priority list for the commissioners.

“I don’t think it would elevate to that level of a priority,” Erichsen said.

However, he said the students seemed to have completed the exercise as described by identifying an issue and a solution, as well as a funding mechanism.

Perhaps different funding options could have been considered, county officials said.

“My goal is to get students to see the potential of what they’ve been learning all along,” Henderson said.

She said she hopes her lessons will motivate students to tackle meaningful projects in their futures.

“It was certainly a very interesting experience to work with the community and get opinions on not only the survey, but the topic as well,” senior Kara Kotler said. “I feel it is important for the college to engage with [members of the] community because they are a great resource for the college.”

The course is expected to be offered every fall. Students will study a different topic each year.

jyeatman@somdnews.com