Wildlife persists against impossible odds, but for how long?

Wildlife persists against impossible odds, but for how long?

Conservation Northwest / Nov 23, 2023 / Cascades to Olympics, Work Updates


I-5 is a multi-lane barrier disrupting free wildlife movement between the Cascades and Olympics mountain ranges. The pathways to address this critical issue are rapidly closing.

This elk photo was taken 100 feet from I-5 in an ever-urbanizing Thurston County in Washington State. In the same month, we have remotely photographed bears, cougars, bobcats, turkeys, deer, and more. But it is here where this massive interstate inadvertently became an impermeable linear barrier that bisects Western Washington border to border.

If an animal attempts to cross there is little to no chance it will make the crossing — so many do not make the attempt. Recent studies suggest that I-5 is a complete barrier for some species and likely processes as well.

This 120-acre parcel is a hot spot for wildlife. Simply put, it is one of only two viable linkages that cross I-5, and these landscapes are dwindling. But here we see animals forced to a place and then repelled by the noise, sounds, and certain death of the interstate. Unfortunately, this will set up the state for some hard choices if fragmentation is not remedied.

Conservation Northwest Northern Linkage bobcat
Conservation Northwest Northern Linkage bobcat

Even without the pressures of constant linear anthropocentric development, land use change, and a rapidly changing climate species still need to move around to survive. Add in development pressures forcing relocation to ever smaller and fragmented habitats and taking away the primary adaptation strategies for many species the state is inviting extirpation and extinction to both iconic critters and common ones.

Conservation Northwest Northern Linkage Cougar
Conservation Northwest Northern Linkage Cougar
Conservation Northwest Northern Linkage bear
Conservation Northwest Northern Linkage bear

Does it have to be this way? Do we have to sacrifice quality of life for our wildlife populations for transportation systems? The answer to those questions is a simple one, um, no……

As the nation and indeed the world begin to grapple with the consequences of past actions and start the adaptation process, we need to offer landscape levels opportunities for all life to make the adjustments spatially to persist in a new climate while coexisting with human populations.

As of October, there is a feasibility study underway on I-5 to determine where wildlife crossing structures are viable. After years of work from myself and others we now begin to see the fruit of those labors take action. State agencies, Tribes, Non-profits, donors, stakeholders, and community members have joined into a coalition that want to act on years of science to implement wildlife and corridor projects that compliment the wildlife crossings we hope to see built.

However, there will need to be champions at the ballot box, in homes, in plannings offices, and community meetings that value our way of life and our natural resources to push these ideas forward. Whether it’s rural jobs, access to game species, road safety, ecosystem services, resource industry, climate adaptation or even flood mitigation the answer it would seem is a connected landscape.

The time to act was 50 years ago, so we are late, but it’s better than never because never will mean never again. Let’s not let that happen, let’s make the systems that support our way of life a human priority.

Brian Stewart MES, Cascades to Olympics Program Manager at Conservation Northwest

Science on I-5 Connectivity:

Stewart Thesis

Assessing the permeability of large underpasses and viaducts on Interstate 5 in Southwest Washington State for local wildlife, with an emphasis on ungulates.

CNW White Paper

Report Summary on Cascades to Olympics Connectivity

Learn more about Safe Passage I-5