Middle schoolers contribute to connectivity science used in the I-5 wildlife crossing feasibility study in Southwest Washington

Middle schoolers contribute to connectivity science used in the I-5 wildlife crossing feasibility study in Southwest Washington

Conservation Northwest / Dec 16, 2023 / Cascades to Olympics, Connecting Habitat, Work Updates


A unique and inspiring collaboration between the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Road Ecology Center at the University of California Davis, and Toutle River Middle School is beginning the edification and education that will cultivate young conservationists and a more connected landscape.

As the need for a landscape that facilitates ecological flow and wildlife movement becomes more apparent, so does the need for generational understanding of the concepts, obstacles, and solutions to these grand problems. While the solutions are often complex, the basic principle of passing on knowledge and mentoring the next generation of biologists, ecologists, and transportation planners can be as simple as passing it forward.

In September of 2023, a class of 7th and 8th graders met with representatives from Conservation Northwest, WSDOT, DNR, and UC Davis to learn about the work being done in the area. Students were able to participate in some field research and visualize what wildlife crossings on I-5 in Southwest Washington could look like. They learned about the recent Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working group maps, how to install wildlife cameras, how to identify wildlife tracks, and how to identify species based on photographs.

Since then, the students deployed four wildlife cameras that they will be responsible for the remainder of this academic year. They continued to strengthen their knowledge of the species in the area and the importance of habitat connectivity specifically around large roadways like I-5.

A group of 7th and 8th grade students preparing their gear before a field outing.
Students from Toutle Lake Middle School on their way to check on their camera station sites along I-5.

When we met again in November, it was a staggeringly cold morning freezing fog. Leaves were as crisp as potato chips, enough to wilt even the hardiest biologist, yet the students arrived invigorated and ready to collect the data from their cameras and continue their learning with the partner representatives.

The students located their cameras, exchanged SD cards, and replaced batteries. The class analyzed the data onsite using iPads to identify species, gender, age, and detection times while recording the data in datasheets just like the ones used by WSDOT. The attention, interest, and skill demonstrated by the class were impressive and reflected an academic level closer to seniors in high school.

When done with cold toes and purple fingers, the group drove 15 minutes south to visit a bridge on I-5 to assess its strengths and weaknesses as a wildlife crossing structure. Building on this assessment, the students then evaluated multiple structure types via photos and hypothesized on what animals may use or avoid the crossing structure type. Not surprisingly they were very accurate and thoughtful, including considerations for species that require cover and noting the need for large prey species to have plenty of light and good lines of sight. To say the least, I was very impressed and quite proud of these young adults. The future is built on hope and these young academics embody it.

As December came around, we visited the classroom to see the final projects and assess lessons learned. Hopefully, these students will continue to work with the project as they ascend grades and invite the next group of 7th and 8th graders to contribute.

I am fortunate to do work that makes me proud. However, the feeling of developing long-lasting contributions to the world and the life that depends on it can be overwhelming. This collaborative effort is planting seeds of knowledge for a better future for these students, the environment, wildlife, and motorists. As for me, I feel I have gained so much being a part of this effort — far more than I have given.

The answer to the plight of our species is all around us if we choose to give of our time and knowledge to the youth for outcomes we will not be around to see. We will usher in a generation of problem solvers, thinkers, listeners, and innovators capable of tackling the grand challenges of our lifetimes.

Learn more about Safe Passage I-5