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Safe wildlife crossings for Interstate 5

Interstate 5 in Southern Oregon is a vital part of our state’s transportation system. And because it passes through one of Oregon’s primary wildlife migration corridors linking the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains, it can also be dangerous. Wildlife-vehicle collisions (WVCs) endanger human life and can cause extensive property damage.

In response to the need for safe wildlife crossings, a group of concerned citizens and representatives from Southern Oregon agencies and organizations recently formed the Southern Oregon Wildlife Crossing Coalition. Our immediate goal is to identify and establish one or more safe wildlife crossings along I-5 between Ashland and the California border as part of a future network of dedicated over- and under-crossings in the area. There are three phases to the project and, of course, funding is a key concern.

We have identified seven potential crossing locations and raised over $125,000 to fund a feasibility study and alternative analysis to help select the best site. In January, 2023, if funding becomes available, the Oregon Department of Transportation will begin the engineering design phase and sometime after that, construction can begin.

To jump-start the feasibility study, efforts are underway by the Bureau of Land Management and students and professors at Southern Oregon University to better understand existing wildlife movement along, across and under I-5 to help inform our project. The BLM is a major supporter of these efforts because I-5 runs through the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, fragmenting the ecological connectivity the area is well known for and the monument was established to protect and preserve.

According to ODOT, there are approximately 6,000 WVCs in Oregon annually. Each WVC involving deer averages $9,086 for emergency response, towing, repairs and medical expenses. For elk, each collision averages $24,006 for repair costs and injury expense. This doesn’t include the intrinsic value of the animal’s life, which some have estimated to be as high as $50,000 depending on the species. Significant portions of this stretch of I-5 are in ODOT’s high-risk “red zones” for WVCs.

More than 17,000 vehicles travel I-5 south of Ashland each day. A huge volume of goods move north and south by truck and trailer, and people travel the highway to work, to school, on vacations, and to go camping and skiing. Collisions with wildlife are an all-too-common occurrence. ODOT regularly removes carcasses of deer, elk, bear, and cougar from this stretch of highway. Many injured animals die unseen, while smaller roadkill species are never recorded. In some cases, wildlife simply turn away because of high volume of traffic and lose opportunities to find mates, food, or better habitats across the highway.

Fortunately, we can make I-5 safer for wildlife and the traveling public. The barrier posed by I-5 is narrow but crossable. The SOWCC envisions carefully-designed overcrossings and under-crossings for wildlife, along with funnel fencing to help guide wildlife to crossing locations. Such road design elements have proven to significantly reduce collisions. For example, the Lava Butte wildlife underpass on Highway 97 in Central Oregon reduced deer collisions by over 90 percent in its first year of operation.

For the past several years, a statewide task force, lead by State Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, has been working on finding new funding. This month, Helm introduced HB 4130-1, which allocates up to $7 million to wildlife crossing planning and construction. The bill is now in the Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Sen. Kathleeen Taylor, D-Portland, and Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Happy Valley.

We support HB 4130-1 because this funding will help advance SOWCC’s project as well as other identified wildlife crossing projects throughout Oregon. State funds can also provide a match for a new wildlife crossing federal grant program established in the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act. We want to bring federal dollars home to Oregon to make our highways safer for both travelers and wildlife.

There is broad bipartisan support for wildlife crossings from voters in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the state. A 2020 poll found that 86% of Oregonians favor constructing more wildlife crossings.

It is past time we created safe passage for wildlife across our highways and provided a safer driving experience for travelers throughout Oregon. Learn more about our effort at www.myowf.org/sowcc.

Amy Amrhein is the volunteer coordinator for the Southern Oregon Wildlife Crossing Coalition. Jack Williams assists the Coalition and is the emeritus senior scientist for Trout Unlimited.