By Dylan J. Darling
A pair of underpasses to move wildlife under U.S. Highway 97 near Sunriver has proved successful in lowering the number of wrecks involving animals. Now state highway officials are considering an overpass south of Crescent with the same goal.
“Each area kind of takes its own kind of treatment,” said Peter Murphy, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation in Bend. Along with the underpasses, the project near Sunriver involved 4 miles of 8-foot-tall fencing on each side of the highway and six electrically charged mats intended to keep deer from walking on roads by passing through gaps in the fences.
State scientists estimate 95 deer per year were killed in collisions with cars and trucks on the stretch of Highway 97 near Sunriver from 2005 to 2010. Since ODOT completed the underpasses and fences near Sunriver in summer 2012, the number has dropped drastically.
“So far I know of only four deer that have been killed in that 4-mile stretch (since ODOT completed the underpasses near Sunriver),” said Simon Wray, a conservation biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Wray helped with the underpasses near Sunriver and said hundreds of similar projects around the country have shown an 85 percent or better decrease in the number of animal-versus-vehicle collisions.
“(That) is a positive for wildlife and driver safety,” he said.
The wildlife underpasses were the first in the state, and if built the overpass south of Crescent would also be the first for wildlife in the state, Murphy said. Other states, including Nevada and Montana, already have wildlife overpasses.
ODOT would also install a 1- to-2-mile-long fence to channel wildlife, particularly deer, up and onto the overpass. The overpass would be about 10 miles south of Crescent on Highway 97 at milepost 190, where berms flank the highway. “There is a good spot where you could connect the two hillsides,” Murphy said.
Like the stretch near Sunriver once was, the portion of highway south of Crescent and north of the junction with state Highway 58 is a deadly place for deer.
“We know we have a hot spot there,” Murphy said.
The early estimate for the cost of the overpass is $1.8 million, and design work should be completed in the fall, he said. The agency hasn’t secured funds to build the overpass. The initial plan is for concrete arches to hold an earthen overpass that is 184 feet across, passing over both lanes of the highway.
The underpasses near Sunriver, along with fencing and electrical mats, cost $1.5 million and were part of a $16 million project to turn Highway 97 into a divided, four-lane highway as it passes through the Newberry Volcanic National Monument.
Researchers have documented a variety of animals going through the underpasses near Sunriver since summer 2012. Murphy said they include deer, bears, bobcats, cougars and coyotes, as well as chipmunks and squirrels.
The two underpasses near Sunriver have different designs but similar features. One is for wildlife only and the other passes under the highway alongside a road connecting to Lava Lands Visitor Center. Both have vegetation in them that deer like to eat.
And they both offer a clear view from one side of Highway 97 to the other. Murphy said this is important when it comes to animal crossings.
“If (animals) can see the other side, that has a direct bearing on whether they will use that location,” Murphy said.
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