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Light at the end of the tunnel

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Maya Smith, an environmental science and policy student at Southern Oregon University, checks out a culvert Thursday under Interstate 5 near the Siskiyou Summit.
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneJack Williams, with Trout Unlimited, points out a culver under Interstate Five near the Siskiyou Summit on Thursday.
Efforts are underway to create more wildlife passages under and over Oregon highways

ASHLAND — A 4-foot-wide metal culvert funneling a trickle of snowmelt under Interstate 5 near the Siskiyou Summit goes virtually unnoticed, until the paw prints in the snow show its current use and potential.

It’s an underground alternative for wildlife to cross the freeway, which amounts to a deadly game of Frogger that collectively kills more than 17,000 animals and causes up to $24,000 apiece for such crashes.

Critters big and small are known to use this tiny culvert for such reasons as seeking new habitat, avoiding wildfire or finding a mate without rolling the dice on a typical I-5 crossing.

“Look at all these tracks,” says Jack Williams, a Medford-based senior scientist with the group Trout Unlimited. “We have images of bobcats, foxes and even a fawn using it, and there’s not even a natural bottom to it.

“But you look through, and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.

Critters aren’t the only ones.

These incidental tunnels could become far more critter-friendly under a renewed push to retrofiit culverts and other features into wildlife passageways.

Williams is part of a consortium that has targeted seven such I-5 under-passages in need of some special tweaks so more of the Siskiyou Mountain denizens can cross I-5 collision-free between Ashland and the California border.

The sites are part of a statewide draft wildlife-passage plan seeking to tap into new federal money for these thoroughfares so animals from elk to Pacific fishers don’t have to play a real and deadly game of Frogger to cross major highways.

The effort includes tapping into $350 million of federal funds dedicated to wildlife crossings throughout the country through 2026.

And now a bill is winding through the Oregon Legislature to free up $7 million toward those efforts.

For years Oregon has significantly lagged behind other nearby states in keeping critters and cars from colliding on known wildlife migration routes, but organizers say they’re poised to make a run at the needed cash.

“Timing is everything, and I think we’re in a good time,” Williams says.

The push is considered such a no-brainer among wildlife advocates of all stripes that it has created some unusual bedfellows.

Groups like the Defenders of Wildlife and the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association, which have clashed bitterly for decades over predator issues involving wolf and cougar management, are singing the same refrain on corridors.

“It’s astounding when Defenders of Wildlife and OHA are coming to the table supporting the same bill,” says Tyler Dungannon, the OHA’s conservation coordinator. “It shows the importance of this and how wide a support wildlife crossings have in Oregon and across the West.

“It’s a bipartisan issue — and it’s an issue because of funding and funding alone,” Dungannon says

While various factions are interested in safe passage for their target species, participants say their goals in these cases are unified.

“It’s not ... a hard thing to talk about,” says Michael Dotson, executive director of the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. “Everyone thinks this is such a great idea.”

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.

The Oregon Department of Transportation estimates about 7,000 collisions occur annually on Oregon roads involving big-game animals such as deer, elk and bear.

These crashes average about $7,000 apiece, when taking into account emergency response time, vehicle damage and loss of wildlife. They run as high as an average of $24,006 for a crash involving elk, one of Oregon’s largest wild animals.

Projects that create underpasses or overpasses of major highways have been popular and shown great benefits in places such as Washington, Montana and California, but their implementation has lagged here.

Now Oregon is looking at taking culverts like this one and retrofitting it to be more critter-friendly and adding things such as barriers to funnel animals toward these passages and away from roadways.

Build it right, and they will come.

Research shows that larger animals such as deer and elk need plenty of overhead clearance to get through while feeling safe from predators. Smaller animals such as rare Pacific fishers need low clearance and vegetation to feel safe.

In recent years, Washington has added about a dozen such crossings throughout its Interstate 90 corridor, with Montana adding 122 crossings and Colorado logging 69 and counting, research shows.

In the past decade, Oregon has added just two significant corridor projects, one on Highway 20 near Pioneer Mountain and another along Highway 97 near Gilchrist.

The 2019 Legislature passed a law mandating the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to create a wildlife corridor program, and the fruits of that effort are starting to move forward.

“The need has been there, but we’ve always struggled with finances,” says Rachel Wheat, ODFW's wildlife connectivity coordinator. “But the momentum has really increased in the past three or four years.”

Locally, the coalition working on Southern Oregon passage possibilities have whittled their selections down to seven from Ashland to the border, including this thin pipe under I-5 near the Siskiyou Summit.

They will need lengthy engineering studies and work before they provide the passage advocates envision. But they’ve already raised $125,000 toward that effort.

This small culvert, for instance, could need widening and perhaps a more defined trail to it, or safer hiding places on each side of I-5.

“These kinds of things are all over the place,” Williams says. “We want to find out the best ones.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.