TONASKET — Work on wildlife crossings on Highway 97 is moving forward despite setbacks from Olympia.

Conservation Northwest and the Mule Deer Foundation began work on a Safe Passage 97 Project to improve safety for motorists and wildlife on 12.5 miles of the state highway between Tonasket and Riverside a few years ago.

According to Jay Kehne, Sagelands Program Lead out of Omak, Wash., this corridor cuts through the migration route of Washington’s largest herd of mule deer and divides critical habitat for Canada lynx. More than 350 deer are hit and killed yearly in this short stretch of Highway 97, making it among the state’s highest rate of auto-deer collisions.

Kehne said the state Department of Transportation estimates the accidents cost around $2,275,000 annually. Encounters increase in the fall, as deer migrate towards the lower-elevation range to spend the winter.

Building off success on the Interstate 90 wildlife crossings, the Okanogan Wildlife Crossing Campaign was launched in 2018 as a public-private effort to fund costs for a wildlife undercrossing on Highway 97 at Carter Mountain Wildlife Area.

According to Kehne, Transportation agreed to cover construction costs as long as the legislature funded the remainder of the Safe Passage 97 project. Between 2018 and early 2019, nearly $200,000 was raised to pay for materials for the first crossing.

Kehne said formal endorsements were 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 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,” said Kehne.

State lawmakers declined to fund any new projects in the 2019-21 transportation budget, including failing to appropriate the $4.3 million Transportation requested to build at least three undercrossings and wildlife fencings on Highway 97.

“We had the funds for the first crossing, but WSDOT didn’t have a dime for construction,” said Kehne.

Focus was then narrowed down to the Janis Bridge area half a mile north of the Carter Mountain Wildlife Area, where the existing structure could provide some safe passage of wildlife.

“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,” said Kehne. “Working with WSDOT and the Colville Tribes, we received permits to renovate Janis Bridge to facilitate greater use by wildlife.”

Using funds raised during the Okanogan Wildlife Crossing Campaign, brush and dirt were removed from under the bridge and sturdy fencing was installed for almost a mile on both sides of the highway to funnel wildlife under the bridge.

Kehne said results of the work were almost instantaneous, with local colleagues and landowners sending in photos of mule deer browsing safely behind the fencing within days of construction. 

“This work will serve as an example we can use in Olympia as we advocate for state funding for additional wildlife crossings,” said Kehne.

More work will be done in the spring to finish up phase one, and Kehne said funding is still needed to help cover remaining costs.

Looking ahead to complete the Safe Passage 97 project, Kehne said securing state transportation funding is increasingly challenging.

“Especially given the passage of Initiative 976 during Washington’s 2019 election, said Kehne. “Still, we’re not giving up.”

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