The state OKs funding for building sites where animals can safely avoid highway traffic
By Michael Dotson
According to State Farm Insurance, Oregon drivers face a greater risk of wildlife collisions than our neighbors in Washington and California. Though deer and elk account for most of the 6,000-plus wildlife collisions in our state, the Oregon Department of Transportation also reports that cougars, bears, and various birds of prey are victims in many crashes.
In a bid to mitigate the financial and ecological losses associated with vehicles colliding with wildlife, the Oregon Legislature recently approved another $5 million in funding in the 2023 session for wildlife-friendly transportation infrastructure. Conservation groups were hoping for a permanent revenue stream for developing wildlife crossings, but this modest investment is an important step forward to addressing the issue in the short term. This is the second year in a row that Oregon has made such an investment, and it looks like Southern Oregon could stand to benefit thanks to the work of the volunteers leading the Southern Oregon Wildlife Crossing Coalition.
When I last wrote about SOWCC in the February 2022 Wild Side column, the volunteer-led coalition (of which KS Wild is a member) was in the early stages of development and building out the partnership. In less than two years, not only has SOWCC raised more than $300,000 for feasibility studies, engineering designs, and matching funds, but it has also raised the profile for a wildlife crossing project along Interstate 5 where it intersects with the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.
Working with the Bureau of Land Management, students at Southern Oregon University, and engineers at the Samara Group, SOWCC launched a photo monitoring and feasibility study two years ago to look at more than half a dozen crossing sites between Exit 14 in Ashland and the California state line. More than 17,000 vehicles traverse this stretch of interstate on a given day, and analysis shows that deer, black bears, and mountain lions have all suffered casualties trying to cross the highway.
In an effort to leverage funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Oregon’s Department of Transportation has identified SOWCC’s Interstate 5 project to be the “gold standard” for Oregon, as the state competes for millions of dollars in new funding through the Wildlife Crossing Pilot Program. This new federal funding source was approved as part of the IIJA and allocates $350 million over the next five years for wildlife crossings across the country.
With about one-third of that funding available this year, SOWCC is hopeful that a new wildlife crossing near the Mariposa Preserve — between mile markers 1 and 2 — will be competitive and receive upward of $7 million to $10 million in matching funds. Co-coordinator Amy Amrhein of SOWCC said the Southern Oregon Interstate 5 wildlife crossing project is not guaranteed to be funded but is in a strong position to receive funding in the next year or so. If things go their way, SOWCC and other partners may see groundbreaking on a wildlife overpass in 2025, where Interstate 5 cuts a large swath through the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.
For the partnership, a wildlife crossing near the state line is an ideal location given the abundance of biodiversity in the area. The Cascade-Siskiyou straddles the Oregon-California border and is a critical linkage between coastal and inland ecosystems. It has also been the focal point for research on wildlife migrations and ecological connectivity. Earlier this year, KS Wild and our partners at the Selberg Institute, the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy and the Center for Large Landscape Conservation published a connectivity report with the help of scientists and insight from transportation agencies. It builds on an earlier ecological connectivity report published in 2018 by Wildwood Consulting and the Selberg Institute.
KS Wild is excited to be a partner in the Southern Oregon Wildlife Crossing Coalition, which is made up 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. You can learn more about the coalition and ways to support wildlife crossings at their website at myowf.org/sowcc.
KS Wild Side appears every month and features a staff member from KS Wild, a regional conservation organization based in Ashland. Michael Dotson works as the executive director for KS Wild and Rogue Riverkeeper. For more information go to kswild.org.