By Hilary Corrigan

The Bulletin

The Bend chapter of the Oregon Hunters Association could start maintaining the deer fences along U.S. Highway 97 near Sunriver, a move meant to support state agencies and make sure the tool — effective so far — continues keeping deer off the highway.

The project in 2012 installed crossings for animals along a 4-mile stretch of the highway about 15 miles south of Bend — from milepost 149 at Lava Butte to milepost 153 at South Century Drive. The project included a wildlife underpass at the south end of that stretch to let animals get across the highway, and a second crossing along Crawford Road, a vehicle road that closes for the season, at the northern end of the stretch. The project installed fencing along both sides of the highway to keep animals from reaching the road and funnel them toward the crossing areas. It also added electrified mats to keep animals from entering the highway at vehicle entrance and exit spots; and jump-outs, mounds of dirt for deer that do make it onto the highway to escape over the fence. The wildlife-related improvements cost about $1.5 million of a total $16 million highway expansion project that added lanes and a median strip, among other work.

The wildlife-related effort was aimed largely at reducing the highway collisions with deer that migrate in the fall and spring. State wildlife and transportation officials have reported around a 90 percent reduction in vehicle collisions with deer along that stretch since the project’s completion. ODOT wildlife cameras have captured pictures of deer, elk, bear, cougars, coyotes and other animals using the crossings.

“It’s working,” ODOT spokesman Peter Murphy said of the fencing and crossing project. “Probably better than expected.”

Nancy Breuner, a wildlife biologist with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, called the project “tremendously effective.”

Currently, ODFW inspects and maintains the fence that runs on U.S. Forest Service land and ODOT supplies materials. The U.S. Forest Service handles any major repairs. Breuner patrols it four times a year, plus after major storms and in response to any reports. She removes fallen tree branches, repairs holes and checks for other problems — noting any major repairs needed — that could let a deer breach the fence and reach the highway.

“It’s basically just getting on an ATV and riding up and down it,” Breuner said.

The hunter’s association is considering taking over that maintenance work as a volunteer project, with ODOT continuing to supply materials. The group continues figuring out whether it has the ability to do the work and will discuss it at one of its meetings, possibly in November, and decide whether to proceed. The group is mainly interested in the effort as conservation that helps deer and other wildlife, according to Eric Brown, an Oregon Hunters Association project volunteer.

“It’s a huge benefit to everybody,” Brown said, adding that the work to maintain it is worth it.

Breuner suspects that the hunters group, with more people, could get out to patrol it more often than she can. She warned against overly-frequent visits that may scare animals off from using the crossing. And the government agencies would all need to agree on the change in maintenance duties.

But it’s to everyone’s interest and benefit to keep that fence going, according to Breuner.

“If they’re willing and able to take it over, that’s fine,” she said of the hunters group,

Such a move could ease the burden on government agencies, Murphy noted. But the long-term implications — including the level of commitment — need attention, he added.

“Initially, it sounds like a good idea,” Murphy said of the hunters group taking over inspection duties. “Initially, we’re interested in having that discussion.”

The stretch of highway had been identified as a hot spot for collisions with animals and now, discussions have considered similar efforts a little farther south.

Oregon transportation officials are looking at expanding a 6-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 97 south of Sunriver into four lanes.

The Oregon Department of Transportation had no details yet about design, costs or timeline, according to Murphy. But the agency is looking at expanding the stretch from mile post 153 at South Century Drive to milepost 159 at the boundary of U.S. Forest Service land. Now in a preliminary engineering stage, the agency is starting to develop a plan and has not secured funds for the expansion yet, Murphy said. The department still needs to do engineering designs and explore any need for easements and land acquisitions. Plans for any median along the stretch were also not yet known.

But the project could include at least two wildlife crossings.

“We know we’re in a hot-spot here for wildlife,” Murphy said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

hcorrigan@bendbulletin.com

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