Deer, elk and humans all benefit when wildlife can cross highways safely
By Michael Dotson
America’s road network, as currently designed, is a major impediment to migration. Fragmentation of habitat caused by roads prevents animals from accessing food and water. For animals both large and small, roads also reduce a species’ long-term viability.
The impacts go beyond barriers to wildlife movement. According to State Farm Insurance, Oregon drivers face a greater risk of wildlife collisions than our neighbors in Washington and California. Deer and elk accounted for a vast majority of the 6,000 wildlife collisions. Oregon’s Department of Transportation (ODOT) also reports that cougars, bears, fishers and various birds of prey fall victim to these collisions. The state tabulates the cost to be about $54 million annually, and that does not include time to recover from injuries or the tragic occasion of the loss of a loved one.
How do we make roads safer for wildlife … and people?
It has been a decade since ODOT constructed its first wildlife crossing. In 2012, the Lava Butte project in central Oregon was built as part of already-planned road improvements on Highway 97. While evidence shows it reduced collisions by as much as 80%, Oregon only has five completed wildlife crossings. Compare that to California and Utah, each with 50. Colorado leads the pack with 69 wildlife crossings.
With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in the U.S. Congress late last year, Oregon is catching on and looking to increase the number of wildlife crossings. In early February, state representative Ken Helm (Washington County) introduced HB 4130 — the Wildlife Crossing Investment Act — with strong bipartisan support. HB 4130 (and its amendment) would allocate $7 million to ODOT for wildlife-friendly infrastructure projects. The state would also be eligible for matching federal funds, after new provisions in the IIJA specifically set aside $350 million for wildlife-friendly projects.
What are the Wildlife Connectivity Concerns in the Klamath-Siskiyou?
In northern California and southern Oregon, the Klamath and Siskiyou mountain ranges have an east-west orientation which is exceedingly unusual among mountain ranges, which generally run north to south. A number of wildlife migration “linkages” have been identified in the region, including the Rogue-Umpqua Divide in Oregon and the Shasta Trinity and Castle Crags linkages in California. The Siskiyou Crest straddles the Oregon/California border and is a key linkage as well.
Scientists have identified these areas are critically important to the connectivity of wildlife populations. They are “land bridges” that offer the highest quality habitat corridors between the Coast Ranges of California and Oregon with the massive volcanic ranges of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada. Unfortunately, Interstate 5 dissects each of these linkages and is a huge barrier to wildlife movement.
KS Wild is excited to be a partner in the Southern Oregon Wildlife Crossing Coalition (SOWCC), which is a group of 17 organizations, state agencies, federal land managers, and science advisors focused on improved infrastructure and wildlife passages along southern Oregon’s Interstate 5 corridor between Ashland and the California state line at the Siskiyou Crest. This stretch of Interstate 5, known as the Siskiyou Pass, cuts right through the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which is the only monument set aside for the primary purpose of protecting the area’s biodiversity.
SOWCC has been around for a few months, but has already raised $125,000 to analyze existing culverts and other potential crossing sites. By November 2022, the group hopes to select one or two locations where an under-crossing or overpass would facilitate better wildlife connectivity. Thanks to the generous support of several KS Wild donors, we were able to make a small contribution to the effort which has also picked up backing and support from Oregon’s Watershed Enhancement Board.
You can learn more about the SOWCC on its new website, where you’ll find maps and details about the wildlife crossing feasibility study at myowf.org/sowcc.
KS Wild Side appears every month and features a staff member from Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild), a regional conservation organization based in Ashland. Michael Dotson is Executive Director and represents the region on a number of statewide and regional coalitions working toward conservation policy change. For more information, go to kswild.org.