A groundswell of public and private support for a wildlife tunnel near Gilchrist has managed to raise over $500,000 for fencing, more than half of what is needed for a project that aims to save mule deer and elk along an important migration route.

The $929,000 fencing project, which will funnel animals toward the crossing on both sides of a 5-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 97, is set to begin in spring 2020, according to Cidney Bowman, wildlife passage coordinator for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Wildlife crossings built underneath — and occasionally above — highways allow animals to follow natural migration patterns while also protecting motorists from dangerous animal strikes. On average, two people die a year in Oregon due to animal-vehicle collisions and over 700 people are injured.

The funding campaign for the fence has so far reached $560,000 of received or pledged funds, including $240,000 from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Other contributors include the Oregon Hunters Association ($110,000), the Oregon Wildlife Foundation ($75,000) and the Mule Deer Foundation ($20,000), said Tim Greseth, executive director of the OWF.

ODOT is planning to spend $800,000 to build the tunnel, located about 5 miles north of Gilchrist, Bowman said. The construction is being done in concert with road widening at the same location. A 10-mile stretch of Highway 97 near Gilchrist saw 267 reported deer and elk vehicle collisions between 2010 and 2017.

A wildlife crossing south of Bend near Lava Butte has reduced collisions by 85% since it was completed in 2012, according to Suzanne Lindford, executive director of Protect Animal Migration, a nonprofit that works with environmental groups to provide the public with information about barriers to animal migration.

The crossing is used by more than 40 species, including deer mule, black bears and squirrels.

A second phase of the Lava Butte project is expected to start next year with a tunnel under the highway 2 miles south of Sunriver. The project is part of a widening of Highway 97 from two lanes to four.

More than 1,000 deer are reportedly struck and killed in Deschutes County annually, according to ODOT. The actual number is believed to be closer to 5,000, as many animals injured by vehicles manage to crawl off the road but later die in the forest. Damage to vehicles can reach over $44 million per year statewide.

Central Oregon is highly susceptible to animal collisions because deer and elk tend to migrate from their summer feeding grounds in the Cascades to the High Desert in the autumn, returning to the mountains in spring. More than 24,000 vehicles use Highway 97 during peak summer months.

“They have to cross the area or they will die,” said Bend-based Bowman.

To help regulate the development of the crossing in Gilchrist and other areas of Oregon, lawmakers in Salem are considering House Bill 2834, which will require ODOT and ODFW to jointly develop a wildlife corridor and safe road crossing action plan for use by state agencies.

“Both ODOT and ODFW possess good data to support migration corridor hot-spots and the requisite placement of future passages in or near these places,” Karl Findling, Conservation Director for Oregon Hunters Association, wrote in testimony for the bill.

“Since Bend is surrounded by federal lands, HB 2834 is the key to unlocking federal assistance to our state, prioritizing and enhancing critical migratory corridors and winter range,” Findling added.

A public information meeting on wildlife crossings sponsored by Protect Animal Migration will be held from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at the Sunriver Aquatics and Recreation Center. The event will include a film screening and a panel discussion. Pre-registration for the event is recommended.

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