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Animal safety on I-5 is agencies' focus

WOLF CREEK — A stretch of Interstate 5 near Wolf Creek could become Southern Oregon's first highway project designed with wildlife in mind.

An Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist is working with the Oregon Department of Transportation to help incorporate animal-friendly features into an upcoming widening project so critters and cars can steer clear of each other in this area known for collisions with animals.

Innovations include guard rails that migrating deer and elk can see through more easily; roadside brush clearing to keep deer and foxes from dashing into the paths of vehicles; even culverts adapted slightly so snails are more apt to wiggle through, along with others built strictly as animal tunnels.

These little tweaks could improve the free-flow of animals of all kinds past a roadway that can disrupt animal migrations and create dangerous interactions for motorists.

"It makes the highway more permeable, and improving the permeability of a highway just a little can make a difference," says Simon Wray, ODFW's liaison with ODOT on the project.

The impacts could be dramatic.

Statistics show that the average animal-vehicle collision costs between $2,500 and $3,000 to fix.

And major highways not only cause animal deaths via collisions, they also can lock animals out of suitable habitat, and over time alter the genetics of migratory animals — all because some animals become chicken while crossing the road.

"We're not just talking deer here," Wray says. "From snails to elk. These help animals of all different stripes."

While other states have seen massive and expensive land bridges or underpasses designed to aid in the free-flow of wildlife, Oregon has had few wildlife-friendly highway projects.

Unlike fish-passage requirements for roads crossing streams, Oregon has no law requiring critter-friendly passage for roads — except when there's potential for impacts on threatened or endangered animals.

Oregon's only projects to date are a stretch of Highway 97 near Bend altered to improve mule-deer migration and a piece of Highway 244 near Elgin altered for lynx passage, Wray says.

Then along came the Jumpoff Joe to Glendale Paving and Climbing Lanes, ODOT's upcoming project to repave 14 miles of freeway between Glendale and Hugo.

The $49.5 million project, which is scheduled for 2013, includes the planned addition of a climbing lane — a slow lane about two miles long for trucks ascending one of the three passes on this stretch.

Members of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center heard of the project and started to push ODOT to make this area more wildlife-friendly as part of the project.

ODFW statistics show this stretch — and the I-5 stretch from south of Ashland to the Siskiyou Summit — accounts for most of the roadkills locally, in part because the freeway crosses important east-west land bridges.

"It's a disproportionately important place for wildlife crossing, so it kind of stuck out for us," says Joseph Vaile, the center's campaign director. "We thought this was an incredible opportunity."

ODOT called in Wray to assess the avenues for wildlife passage there, and to determine where some improvements could be made, though there is no extra money in ODOT's budget for this project, ODOT spokesman Dan Latham says.

"We're open to the idea," Latham says. "At ODOT, we build things. If there's a need and money available, we're ready to do what needs to be done."

Wray spent part of last week walking the stretch and discovered some key areas already used by wildlife.

An underpass beneath the Glendale exit, for instance, contains a slew of game trails animals use to slip beneath the freeway, Wray says.

While many of the culverts on the stretch are too steep for wildlife, some can have substrate added to them or they can be retrofitted with benches to make them more useful, Wray says.

Other possibilities are swapping concrete barriers for visually permeable guard rails, trimming back foliage, removing thickets within medians and perhaps building a culvert for migration.

The trick is to provide avenues for wildlife to cross I-5 without their having to wander up and down the shoulder waiting to find the spot and the mettle to make a dash for it.

"The longer they hang out by the highway, the higher the chance they're going to turn into road pizza," Wray says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Simon Wray, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist says that culverts like this one near the Cow Creek Rest Area outside of Glendale provide important passage for wildlife across Interstate 5. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch