Your support creates safe passage for people and animals

Your support creates safe passage for people and animals

Conservation Northwest / Feb 22, 2018 / Connecting Habitat, I-90 Wildlife, Members, Wildlife Crossings

“We couldn’t let the animals stop the highway, we couldn’t let the highway stop the animals.” – Doug MacDonald, former Washington State Secretary of Transportation

Bull elk on a highway. Photo: WSDOT

If you are anything like me, you haven’t thought much about wildlife as you’ve cruised across the Cascade Mountains on Interstate 90, eager to engage in your favorite outdoor activity at Snoqualmie Pass, attend a concert at the Gorge Amphitheater, catch up with cousins in Ellensburg, or go on a wine-tasting tour in Yakima. You and I aren’t unlike many of the people in the 27,000 vehicles that drive this busy stretch of freeway each day. But the truth is, I-90 bisects a massive and otherwise well-connected ecosystem, one that wildlife depend on for survival.

It wasn’t until I started working at Conservation Northwest a year ago that I came to understand the severe habitat issues that exist in the I-90 corridor between North Bend and Easton. Unbeknownst to me, Interstate 90, our region’s largest east-west freeway contributing greatly to our economy and providing access to plentiful outdoor activities, has had a negative impact on the wildlife of the Central Cascades and beyond. Thankfully, our organization is leading the charge to create safe passage for both people and animals.

Want to be a part of this vital work for wildlife crossings and connected habitat? Please become a Conservation Northwest member today for as little as $35!

A divided ecosystem

When thinking of the Cascade Mountains Ecosystem, it’s helpful to imagine the rugged North Cascades as the center of a wheel, with spokes connecting northwest into British Columbia Coast Range and north to the boreal forests of interior Canada. To the east across the Okanogan Valley are the Kettle River Range and the Columbia Highlands of northeast Washington. To the west, lush river valleys and forests meet the human-dominated Puget Lowlands. And to the south, the backbone of this ecosystem extends through Washington’s Central and South Cascades all the way to the Columbia River Gorge.

On the western side of this sprawling landscape is the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest along with a variety of state and private forestlands. On the east is the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, with several state wildlife areas where the mountains meet sage-steppe grasslands. In the middle are North Cascades National Park, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and Mount Rainier National Park, respectively. Together, these wildlands makeup a haven for wildlife that stretches more than 200 miles from north to south.

Rendition of the Keechelus Lake Wildlife Overcrossing, expected to be complete in 2019. Graphic: WSDOT

As you may well have realized by now, the six lanes of I-90 cut through the heart of this wild place. With a fracture at the center of the Cascades Ecosystem, wildlife populations are less resilient. And an assemblage of animals ranging from common to endangered call this landscape home—from grizzly bears, wolves and lynx to deer, elk, fishers and black bears. All of these species rely on the ability to seek out food and quality habitat, find mates, and often, to make seasonal migrations from highcountry summer habitat to less-snowy winter ranges.

In short: animal populations need room to roam. Providing a connected network of habitats to allow for the safe movement of wildlife is called habitat connectivity.

While other east-west roadways cross the Cascades, including highways 20, 2, 410 and 12, their much smaller size and traffic reduces their impact on wildlife. I-90 is the biggest fracture in this ecosystem, and for more than a decade it’s where we’ve directed our efforts through our I-90 Wildlife Corridor Campaign.

And it’s not just the lives of wildlife that are at stake. Human lives are too often cut short or drastically altered when large animals, such as mule deer and elk, attempt to cross the highway but instead collide with oncoming cars. Safe passage isn’t just for wildlife—it benefits people and freight transportation, too.

Reconnecting the North and South Cascades

While I may have been clueless about this habitat fragmentation up until recently, it comes as no surprise that Conservation Northwest, having worked to protect, connect and restore wildlands and wildlife from the Washington Coast to the British Columbia Rockies since 1989, has been seeking solutions in this important landscape.

Your support makes our work possible. Join Conservation Northwest today to support a connected Cascades Ecosystem!

An elk herd traveling under I-90 through the Gold Creek Wildlife Undercrossing. Photo: WSDOT

For nearly two decades, we’ve led a strategic approach to reconnect Washington’s North and South Cascades. From 2000-2004, we spearheaded The Cascades Conservation Partnership, an innovative collaborative effort that raised nearly $16 million in private donations and $68 million in public funds to protect nearly 45,000 acres of forest lands from logging and development.

Building on this success protecting wildlands in the I-90 corridor, we launched our I-90 Wildlife Corridor Campaign in 2005, a multi-pronged effort to restore forests and habitat in the Central Cascades, conduct wildlife monitoring to document animal movement and inform wildlife crossing locations, and advocate for safe passage under and over the interstate through the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition.

A collaboration of more than forty organizations and businesses administered and fiscally sponsored by Conservation Northwest, for a decade the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition successfully championed the inclusion of wildlife crossings in WSDOT’s I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East Project.

Learn more about the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition in the new documentary: Cascade Crossroads

In the past few years, much of our strategic vision has finally come to fruition as three large wildlife underpasses are now complete just east of Snoqulamie Pass, allowing wildlife big and small to travel safely under the interstate. More than a dozen smaller undercrossings and expanded culverts are also either completed or under construction. Not just for land animals—bull trout, kokanee salmon, otters, ducklings and other aquatic wildlife are using new crossings at Gold Creek, Rocky Run Creek and Townsend’s creek to access previously-blocked habitat, including important spawning areas for native fish.

Restoration of these crossing areas, including reestablishing native plants and natural landscapes, is also underway. Working with the U.S. Forest Service, Conservation Northwest leads “planting parties” several times a year to help restore these construction sites into quality habitat. Just this past September, we organized more than seventy volunteers from Microsoft, Google and other businesses to restore habitat near the Gold Creek Wildlife Undercrossing for United Way’s Day of Caring. Efforts like this will soon continue at other crossing locations.

Microsoft employees after a wet but FUN day restoring habitat at Gold Creek near new I-90 Wildlife Crossings in September 2017. Photo: Paul Bannick

Today, there’s a lot of buzz around the completion of the first seven miles of this project. After all, wildlife monitoring cameras operated by WSDOT and Conservation Northwest are now routinely documenting wildlife crossing safely under I-90. And the project’s biggest milestone yet is approaching: construction of the first overpass expected to be complete in 2019, offering a new model for major infrastructure projects bisecting wild places.

Looking ahead to new connections

Two decades ago, we took a big picture look at the Interstate 90 corridor around Snoqualmie Pass and committed to protecting the land, restoring the forests, connecting the habitat and documenting local wildlife. This work is just one example of Conservation Northwest’s innovative, collaborative and strategic approach to conservation.

We’re proud of our success in this landscape, but it doesn’t mean our work is done.

With such progress protecting, connecting and restoring habitat where I-90 cuts through the Cascade Mountains, we’re now looking more closely at other Northwest landscapes where wildlife crossings and improved habitat connectivity are badly needed. Of particular note is Highway 97 in Okanogan Country, where an average of three mule deer a day are killed by vehicles as the highway bisects their seasonal migration route.

Working with national, state, local and tribal partners, we coordinate the Working for Wildlife Initiative in this area. And we’ll be sharing information on a new connectivity effort in this important north-central Washington landscape in the coming months.

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

The work of Conservation Northwest is exemplified by the progress of our I-90 Wildlife Corridor Campaign, and its success working with collaborations including the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition. We are an organization that looks at problems from the landscape level, working with allies and governments to find innovative solutions. Together we’ve not only reconnected wildlife habitat, we’re also connecting Washingtonians with their wild backyard and sharing information about the importance of the Cascades Ecosystem. But this work is only possible through your support.

Don’t let the success end here. Together we can ensure that this project becomes the legacy it was intended to be. And that similar efforts continue in other areas.

Join us in making history: Please consider a donation today!

Thank you to our thousands of members and supporters who make this vital work possible. YOU are creating safe passage for people and animals.



Maureen McGregor, Development Associate