Wildlife need safe passage from the Cascades to the Olympics

Wildlife need safe passage from the Cascades to the Olympics

Conservation Northwest / Sep 02, 2020 / Cascades to Olympics, Connecting Habitat, Wildlife Crossings

A black bear recently spotted while trying to cross Interstate 5 demonstrates the need for wildlife crossings in southwest Washington.

By Brian Stewart, Cascades to Olympics Coordinator

For the second time in four months a black bear has been seen attempting to cross Interstate 5 in Washington state—this time near Olympia. Like other animals, black bears move through the landscape seeking food, mates and suitable habitat. Unfortunately, I-5 creates a barrier between the Cascade Mountains, Willapa Hills and Olympic Peninsula that can prevent native wildlife from accessing essential life-sustaining resources, negatively impacting biodiversity and diminishing local wildlife populations.

Black bear and cubs crossing highway.                                               Photo: iStock.com / wergodswarrior

When large animals like bear, deer or elk attempt to cross high-speed, high-volume highways like I-5 they not only tend to lose their lives in collisions, but they endanger motorists’ lives as well. The vehicle damage, state patrol and emergency medical response, and cleanup associated with these collisions cost the public millions of dollars each year.

Conservation Northwest has been a leader in reconnecting habitat by establishing wildlife crossings in major wildlife corridors. Today, thousands of animals are safely getting across I-90 near Snoqualmie Pass by using wildlife bridges as a result of our successful I-90 Wildlife Corridor Campaign.

Through the collaborative Safe Passage 97 project in north-central Washington, we’re working to establish wildlife crossings on a 12.5-mile stretch of Highway 97 where more than 350 mule deer are hit and killed each year. Just recently, we completed the first, private phase of this project by renovating Janis Bridge to serve as wildlife undercrossing and installing fencing along the highway. We’ve documented deer, cougars, coyotes, bobcats and other critters heavily using this structure already.

An existing structure under I-5 at Newaukum River. Our Cascades to Olympics program seeks to enhance structures like these to better serve as wildlife crossings.                                   Photo: Brian Stewart

We’re working to build off of these successful efforts to establish wildlife crossings on I-5 in southwest Washington through our Cascades to Olympics program. Through collaboration with state and federal agencies, nonprofits, tribes and landowners, we’re seeking solutions to habitat fragmentation in the Chehalis Basin so black bears and other animals can move across the landscape.

Through our habitat connectivity research in the Cascades to Olympics program area, we’ve identified several locations (Newaukum River, Skookumchuck River to Prairie Creek, and Owl Creek) that would be suitable for improvements to serve as more effective wildlife crossings by removing blockages, doing restoration work, and installing fencing, cattleguards, and jump-outs—similar to Janis Bridge on Highway 97. We’re also advocating for wildlife-specific crossing structures in areas on I-5 identified to have both high rates of collisions and importance for regional connectivity, such as the area north of Toutle River.

We envision an I-5 in southwest Washington that is permeable for wildlife and safer for motorists. Together with public support, we will seek solutions to habitat fragmentation along the I-5 corridor that will improve safety, protect drivers and wildlife, save taxpayer dollars, and create good jobs.

Learn more about our Cascades to Olympics program, or watch a recording of our recent webinar about connecting habitat in this landscape.
Roosevelt elk near Olympic National Park. Photo: Chase Gunnell