Safe Passage 97 project moving forward despite setbacks from Olympia

Safe Passage 97 project moving forward despite setbacks from Olympia

Conservation Northwest / Nov 13, 2019 / Cascades to Rockies, Connecting Habitat, Okanogan Working for Wildlife, Sagelands, Wildlife Crossings

With support from donors and local partners, we renovated Janis Bridge to serve as a wildlife undercrossing and are installing fencing along Highway 97 to keep deer and motorists safe.

In north-central Washington’s Okanogan Valley a wildlife tragedy continues to unfold: more than 350 deer are hit and killed each year in one short stretch of Highway 97. That’s nearly one deer killed per day, and even that’s a conservative estimate. Encounters increase in the fall as deer enter their mating season and migrate towards the lower-elevation range where they spend the winter.

Most of Washington’s mule deer migrate from summer range in the mountains to winter range in the valleys. In Okanogan County, Highway 97 cuts right through their migration route. Photo: WSDOT

This stretch of highway has among the state’s highest rate of auto-deer collisions, presenting a huge safety hazard for drivers as well as wildlife. These accidents not only cost lives, they also cost a lot of money. Animal-vehicle crashes along Highway 97 cost drivers, insurers and taxpayers more than $2,275,000 annually, with an average of $6,500 per accident, including vehicle damage, Washington State Patrol and emergency medical response, and clean up by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

Conservation Northwest and the Mule Deer Foundation have led a Safe Passage 97 project to improve safety for motorists and end this senseless loss of life on Highway 97 in the 12.5 miles between Tonasket and Riverside, where this busy transportation corridor cuts through the migration route of Washington’s largest herd of mule deer and divides critical habitat for Canada lynx.

The proposed solution builds off our success on Interstate 90: wildlife crossings to connect the wildlands of the North Cascades to the west with the Okanogan Highlands and Kettle River Mountain Range to the east. And fencing to keep deer and other wildlife off the highway and help funnel them to the undercrossings. Given how much collisions with deer on Highway 97 are costing the state and local communities, these tactics would pay for themselves in less than three years.

The Okanogan Wildlife Crossing Campaign

Omak high school students presented to parents and classmates on the benefits of the Safe Passage 97 project, an important part of local outreach efforts! Photo: Jay Kehne

After years of local outreach, including educational programs with Omak-area students and volunteer work to renovate the trailhead at the popular Carter Mountain Wildlife Area within the project corridor, we had broad backing from local leaders and residents and buy-in from WSDOT, but were facing persistent inaction from lawmakers in Olympia.

To get the ball rolling and demonstrate support, in 2018 we launched the Okanogan Wildlife Crossing Campaign, a public-private effort to fund materials costs for a wildlife undercrossing on Highway 97 at Carter Mountain. We’d buy the first crossing and give it to the state, with WSDOT agreeing to cover construction costs as long as the legislature funded the Safe Passage 97 project.

More than 570 Conservation Northwest members and donors contributed to the Okanogan Wildlife Crossing Campaign to raise over $125,000, including a very generous donation from the Lea Foundation. THANK YOU to everyone who donated!

Partner groups including the Okanogan Trails Chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation and other Mule Deer Foundation chapters across the state, the Washington Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and many others chipped in to bring the total raised to nearly $200,000 by early 2019, enough to pay for the cement and other materials for the first crossing.

A graphic rendition of how one wildlife crossing under Highway 97 in the Okanogan Valley would look.

This outpouring of financial support was matched by formal endorsements recruited from more than a dozen local and national stakeholders, including Okanogan County, the City of Omak, the Okanogan Tourism Council, the Central Washington Latino Community Fund, local state legislators, trucking and freight associations, area farms, the National Wildlife Federation and the Colville Confederated Tribes.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned during the 2019 session of the Washington State Legislature.

Money was extremely tight, and despite the endorsements and more than 1,000 messages from Conservation Northwest activists contacting Senators and Representatives, in the end, state lawmakers declined to fund any new projects in the 2019-21 Transportation Budget. This included failing to appropriate the $4.3 million WSDOT requested to build at least three undercrossings and wildlife fencing on Highway 97.

As the legislative session concluded, we had the money to pay for the first wildlife crossing on Highway 97, but the Department of Transportation didn’t have a dime for construction. Unwilling to just sit idle and wait until the next session while deer are killed and drivers injured, we decided to get creative.

Phase 1: the Janis Bridge undercrossing and deer fencing

By summer 2019, Jay Kehne, our Sagelands Program Lead based in Omak and a board member of the local Mule Deer Foundation chapter, was having discussions with leaders at WSDOT about how our funds could be used to begin solving the problem of vehicle-animal collisions on Highway 97 despite continued inaction from Olympia.

A map showing deer-vehicle collisions and proposed wildlife undercrossing sites on Highway 97. Graphic: WSDOT

Survey work and data analysis had already identified areas along the 12.5 miles of highway where roadkill is most frequent, the best sites for wildlife undercrossings, and existing structures that allowed some safe passage for wildlife. Of those, Janis Bridge stood out.

Just a half mile north of the Carter Mountain Wildlife Area, with alfalfa and other agricultural fields surrounding the highway that are a draw for deer, animals were already crossing beneath Highway 97 here using a brushy trail on the banks of the Okanogan River.

After visiting the site and discussing applicable regulations with WSDOT, the county and staff from the Colville Tribes, Kehne and Conservation Northwest were given the greenlight to serve as project manager for work to renovate Janis Bridge to facilitate greater use by wildlife. Using the funds raised during the Okanogan Wildlife Crossing Campaign, a contracted crew would remove brush and dirt from under the bridge to create considerably more space for wildlife, while also installing sturdy fencing for nearly a mile on either side of the highway to funnel deer and other animals under the bridge.

After acquiring permits and soliciting bids, Kehne and his crew moved quickly on this new first phase of the Safe Passage 97 project. By October 2019, the area under Janis Bridge was cleared to provide a much better pathway for wildlife, fence posts were erected for a mile on either side of the highway, and .3 miles of high fencing was built connecting to the bridge.

The results were almost instantaneous, with photos of mule deer browsing safely behind the new fence sent to us by local colleagues and landowners within days of construction.

Conservation Northwest donors, Mule Deer Foundation members and the many others who supported the Okanogan Wildlife Crossing Campaign can be proud of the new Janis Bridge wildlife undercrossing, and the deer and drivers it’s keeping safe this fall! But the work of the Safe Passage 97 project is far from complete.

Mule deer kept safely off Highway 97 by the new eight-foot-high fencing running along the roadway from Janis Bridge to Carter Mountain Wildlife Area. Photo: Jay Kehne

Finishing up Phase 1, and looking ahead

Due to the costs of quality deer fence and the renovation work at Janis Bridge, funding constraints meant we were unable to complete the full mile of fencing by the time the weather turned this fall. Another .6 miles of fencing will be strung in spring 2020, and we’ll need to purchase and install gates and two cattle guards where roads cross the fence to keep livestock and deer off the highway while allowing landowner and public access.

As we’ve started fundraising to finish this work we’ve found several new supporters. The Community Foundation of North Central Washington and Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s Outdoor Fund have both recently provided generous grants to support the remaining fencing, cattle guards and gates. THANK YOU!

We still have work to do to finish up Phase 1, and welcome donations to help cover remaining costs. You can make a gift for this project online, just select Highway 97 Wildlife Crossings under gift designation.

Given data on roadkill from the stretch of Highway 97 between Carter Mountain and Janis Bridge,this work alone is expected to save the lives of more than 100 deer each year. It will also serve as an example we can use in Olympia as we advocate for state funding for additional wildlife crossings.

This first phase of work becomes even more critical as we consider longer-term strategies to complete the Safe Passage 97 project. Broad support remains for wildlife undercrossings connected by fencing in this stretch of Highway 97, but securing state transportation funding is increasingly challenging, especially given the passage of Initiative 976 during Washington’s 2019 election.

Read more about how passage of I-976, Tim Eyman’s car tab measure, makes securing transportation funding more difficult in this November 10, 2019 article from The Spokesman Review.

Still, we’re not giving up, and we have a plan to continue to show that safe passage in the Okanogan Valley is a priority for local residents, community leaders and conservationists around our state. We also appreciate continued support from elected leaders.

Both people and mule deer need to move. We’re working to create safe passage for both on Highway 97. Photo: Technotr

“Highway 97 is a transportation priority for industry and people of Eastern Washington,” state Representative Jacqueline Maycumber, who filed the Transportation Budget request in 2019, told The Omak Chronicle newspaper in October. “The project brought to me was a bipartisan effort to make the transport over 97 safer and more effective, while using current infrastructure to limit deer collisions and reducing costs.”

Maycumber said she would continue to work with stakeholders for future requests.

Phase 2, connecting the Cascades to the Rockies

Working with WSDOT and other partners, we’ve outlined Phase 2 of the Safe Passage 97 project to include two wildlife undercrossings (one at Carter Mountain Wildlife Area), 2.3 miles of additional fencing on both sides of the highway, and up to six cattle guards. This work is projected to cost the state $4 million. This is a reasonable ask given that vehicle-animal collisions in this stretch of roadway currently cost more than $2.2 million per year.

While the viability of securing funding for this next phase of the project depends on developments in Olympia, it’s important to continue planning and looking ahead. We’ll be sure to keep project supporters updated as Phase 1 wraps up and further opportunities arise, including throughout the legislative session.

This project is also an important piece of larger, landscape-scale conservation strategies. Our work on Safe Passage 97 is organized internally under Conservation Northwest’s Sagelands Heritage Program, which works to maintain, restore and connect shrub-steppe landscapes from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to south-central Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills for the good of both wildlife and people.

And since 2014, we’ve worked with partners to improve the Cascades to Rockies habitat corridor where it crosses the Okanogan Valley through a collaborative effort called the Working for Wildlife Initiative, facilitated by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and coordinated by Conservation Northwest. A key objective of the Initiative is to create safer passage for people and wildlife on Highway 97.

The Safe Passage 97 project is a rare opportunity to bring about tangible solutions to protect both people and wildlife in north-central Washington. While we’ve faced challenges securing public funding and have had to move forward in phases, we’re not giving up on that goal.

Jay Kehne posing with the new eight-foot-high deer fence near Highway 97 in the Okanogan Valley.