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Wildlife crossing bill deserves swift passage

In our hyper-polarized politics, it is rare that a piece of legislation can get support from interests that are usually diametrically opposed. So it’s refreshing to see that happening with a bill to develop new ways for wildlife to cross Interstate 5 between Ashland and the California border.

It helps that the price tag — just $7 million in state dollars — is a pittance when compared with other projects, but will leverage a share of $350 million in federal money earmarked for wildlife crossings nationwide through 2026.

Collisions between motor vehicles and wild animals are costly and can cause injury and death to people as well as wildlife. The Oregon Department of Transportation estimates 7,000 collisions happen annually between vehicles and deer, elk and bear. Collisions with a deer cost an average of $9,086 for vehicle repairs, emergency response, towing and medical expenses. When a much larger elk is involved, each collision costs just over $24,000. And those figures don’t count the value of the animal.

Undercrossings, created from modified culverts, or overcrossings have been proven to reduce the frequency of these collisions. The Lava Butte wildlife underpass on Highway 97 between Bend and Klamath Falls reduced collisions with deer by more than 90% in its first year.

The stretch of I-5 between Ashland and the state line sees more than 17,000 vehicle trips every day, and several parts of the highway are on ODOT’s list of “red zones” for wildlife-vehicle collisions.

A local group called the Southern Oregon Wildlife Crossing Coalition has identified seven potential crossing locations and raised more than $125,000 to pay for a feasibility study.

House Bill 4130-1 would allocate up to $7 million for planning and construction of crossings, and provide matching funds for federal dollars in the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act.

Wildlife crossings enjoy bipartisan support in the Legislature, and the idea is popular with the public as well.

Oregon is playing catch-up on crossing projects, having created only two, while Washington has a dozen, Montana 122 and Colorado 69.

As we mentioned earlier, groups that usually disagree on nearly everything — Defenders of Wildlife and the Oregon Hunters Association — are on the same page on this issue. That ought to be reason enough to push it through the Legislature without delay.