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Ever since Henry Ford started up the assembly line, the bell began tolling for Bambi and his buddies -- even in Niagara County.

Statistics show that deer were involved in 194 traffic accidents in 1996 and that 186 car-deer accidents were reported in the county as of Dec. 15, 1997, according to Niagara County sheriff's department statistics.

Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein's office started keeping statistics on deer-car collisions in 1996.

Deer were reported killed in 132 of those 1996 accidents, but state Department of Environmental Conservation officials say most deer that are hit by cars die as a result. Officials say deer may run from the scene but usually die of their injuries.

James R. Snider, a DEC senior wildlife biologist, said state statistics may represent only about 20 percent of traffic accidents involving deer.

The numbers reflect only the number of tags returned from police showing a deer died at the scene of an accident and was turned over to some citizen. He said many motor vehicle-deer accidents go unreported and that some motorists just take the carcass home with them when they hit a deer.

The number of deer-car collisions reported over the past two years is not unusual in Niagara County.

DEC records show that 183 deer were reported killed by motor vehicles here in 1990, 192 in 1991, 211 in 1992, 178 in 1993, a low of 168 in 1994 and a decade high of 222 in 1995.

Niagara County, however, is a small-time player in this slaughter compared two other Western New York counties: Erie and Chautauqua.

Erie County reported 603 road kills in 1996, and a decade high of 749 in 1995. Even in its lowest year, 1990, 592 kills were reported.

Chautauqua County reported a high of 375 and a low of 252, state figures show.

Orleans County reported the smallest number of car-deer accidents during that same six-year period, with just 91 in 1993 and a high of 122 in 1991.

State statistics for 1997 will be available early next year.

People's patterns, rather than deer patterns, explain why there are so many car-deer collisions each year in Niagara County, Snider said.

"I think what you find, especially in an area like Niagara County, is that even though we don't have as high a deer population as you have in some Southern Tier counties, you do have a higher number of people commuting back and forth to work and driving about just as a part of their daily lives. The higher the number of people living in a county, the higher the proportion of deer being hit on the highways you're going to get," Snider said.

The death toll rises immensely during mating season, a time when deer apparently lose all caution in their search for mates, according to Snider.

"The main time we see a large number of deer killed on the highways is in October, November and December. That's just before, during and just after the peak breeding season, which occurs in early November.

"At that time we have a lot more deer activity and I think they (the deer) tend to lose some of the wariness they show during the rest of the year when they come to a highway. When they are doing that, they are not very smart. And that's when you see the peak of deer-car collisions," Snider said.

Statistics support this statement.

In just October, November and half of December this year, 89 deer-car collisions were reported to Niagara County sheriff's deputies. This is about half of 186, the total for the whole year.

The same held true in 1996, when 101 of the 194 car-deer accidents were reported in that three-month period, according to sheriff's statistics.

Statewide, motor vehicles killed 9,843 deer in 1990, 10,978 in 1991, 11,821 in 1992, 10,328 in 1993, 9,453 in 1994 and 11,793 in 1995.

During that time period, Erie County led all counties in the state in deer deaths in 1991 with 691, in 1992 with 732 and in 1994 with 625.

Monroe County placed second in 1991 and 1992 with 613 and 693, respectively.

In 1994, St. Lawrence County placed second with 569 and then took over top spot with 765 in 1995. Erie County was second that year, with 749.

Monroe County took first in 1990 and 1993 with 661 and 646, respectively, while Erie County came in second at 592 in 1990 and 609 in 1993.

Aside from the death of the whitetails, car-deer crashes also can kill or injure motorists and extensively damage vehicles.

Niagara County sheriff's Deputy Stephen Gaydos, who has handled his share of these collisions, said, "They do plenty of damage (to vehicles), especially to the front end or the door of a car."

Gaydos could recall no car-deer collisions in the past two years that have resulted in serious or fatal injuries to people, but he recalled one very close call.

"I had one in Newfane where the deer came right in through the front window. If someone had been in the passenger seat, they could have been killed," Gaydos said.

Deer-car crashes are difficult to prevent because both the deer and the car can be moving, Gaydos said.

"It's hard to avoid. They just come out at you. Keeping your speed down will help your reaction time and may help you stop in time," Gaydos said.

He said staying alert and looking for deer along roadsides, ready to enter the road, will give a driver a better chance.

Snider said drivers should be on the alert for deer in the hours when they normally are moving, "Two hours before daylight and the two or three hours before dusk. Just be looking out for them. Also, if you see a deer, just make the assumption it will cross in front of you and that more than one is probably coming."

Snider says hunting plays little role in deer-car accidents.

"If you are anti-hunter, that's what you claim: 'The deer are killed because hunters are chasing them into the road.'

"But if you look at the data from a place such as Amherst, where there's no hunting, you see the exact same distribution of car-deer collisions in October and November (hunting season) as you do in places where there is hunting," Snider said.