The groups behind a Central Oregon solution for keeping drivers from hitting deer and other animals on U.S. Highway 97 could provide the key for replicating the success in other parts of the state.

In 2012, the Oregon Department of Transportation finalized two wildlife undercrossings — tunnels beneath busy roadways designed to allow deer, elk and other wildlife to cross — and four miles of fencing south of Bend near Lava Butte.

Seven years later, the crossings have cut collisions with wildlife in the four-mile stretch of road by 86 percent and have been used by more than 30 species, from squirrels to black bears, according to Cidney Bowman, wildlife passage coordinator for ODOT. The state transportation agency believes the approach and the partnerships that have sprung up around the project can kick-start similar crossings in Gilchrist and other parts of the state where deer often run out into the road.

“Our hope is that it can be a model for other migration corridors throughout the state,” Bowman said.

Cars hit wildlife at high speeds at a startling rate on Oregon highways, and the collisions have serious consequences for people and animals. Bowman said about 700 people across Oregon are injured each year due to collisions with wildlife, and a few of those collisions are fatal. Last June, an off-duty firefighter died on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation after his motorcycle struck a black bear on the highway.

Corey Heath, wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said Central Oregon’s highways are hotspots for collisions with deer, due to the animals’ migration patterns. Heath said many mule deer use high-elevation areas to grow and give birth while the weather is warm, before retreating down to lower elevations when the snow starts falling in the mountains. Unfortunately, these journeys often force them to cross Central Oregon’s roads and highways.

Heath said at least 1,000 deer die crossing Central Oregon’s roads each year. Because those numbers are based on carcasses found along the highway, they don’t count seriously injured deer that die later in the forest, meaning the numbers may be significantly higher.

“We’re killing more deer with cars than we are with guns,” said Karl Findling, conservation director for the Oregon Hunters Association.

Suzanne Linford, founder and executive director of Protect Animal Migration, a citizens group dedicated to improving habitat connectivity for migrating deer in Deschutes County, said the problem is getting more significant as more cars use Highway 97. Without providing more crossings, Linford said the highway could become almost impossible to cross.

To date, there are three formal underpasses for wildlife in Oregon: the two between Bend and Sunriver, as well as a subsequently built crossing for deer and elk between Newport and Corvallis. However, Findling said this falls well short of efforts in other Western states such as Washington, Wyoming and Montana, which each have dozens of crossings in place.

“We know in Oregon, we’re way behind other states and provinces,” Findling said.

Part of the problem is funding. To work effectively, Bowman said the underpasses have to be accompanied by miles of fencing along the highway to funnel animals toward crossing, with electrified pads in gaps in the fences help deter the animals from crossing where they could get struck by cars. All told, Bowman said the cost to build the crossings by Lava Butte exceeded $3 million.

Without a dedicated funding source in the state budget for wildlife crossings, as states like Washington have, Oregon’s state agencies and other interested parties have to be creative get the projects off the ground.

Rather than building them on finished stretches of road, Bowman said it makes financial sense to add them to ongoing road projects. She said the crossings near Lava Butte were just a small portion of a much larger road widening effort.

“We’ve really tried to piggyback on existing highway projects,” Bowman said.

For other crossings, including one slated just north of Gilchrist on Highway 97, ODOT has enlisted the help of the public to fill its funding gaps. Bowman said the crossing, which is scheduled to break ground later this year, should help deer pass what’s the most deadly stretch of the highway for them, with 267 deer dying over a 10-mile stretch between 2010 and 2017.

To date, groups like Protect Animal Migration, the Oregon Hunters Association, the Mule Deer Foundation have raised $420,000 toward fencing and other components of the project. In lieu of a dedicated source of state revenue, Bowman said fundraising and grants from federal and state agencies will be critical to getting projects like this off the ground in other parts of the state, like southwest Oregon and the John Day River basin, where collisions involving deer are common.

While Linford said projects in other areas are not imminent, she added that she’s working with state agencies and nonprofits to develop a plan to fund wildlife crossings in a sustainable manner. In the meantime, she said advocacy group is giving talks and raising awareness of the need for crossings in other parts of the state.

“(ODFW) is very interested in taking this statewide,” Linford said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, 
shamway@bendbulletin.com

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