Oregon News

Bill would boost spending on wildlife highway crossings

By JAYSON JACOBY
Oregon Capital Bureau

A bill intended to reduce expensive, and potentially fatal, collisions between cars and wildlife on Oregon’s highways had its first public hearing recently in Salem.

House Bill 2999, which would allocate $5 million to build wildlife underpasses, fences and other structures, had a hearing Feb. 9 in the House Committee on Agriculture, Land Use, Natural Resources and Water.

State Rep. Ken Helm, a Democrat from Beaverton, is among the chief sponsors for the bill.

“Oregon has taken important first steps on badly needed wildlife crossing solutions,” Helm said in a press release. “This bill will keep us moving on implementation of projects with real benefits for communities across the state, urban and rural alike.”

Other chief sponsors include Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, whose district includes Baker County.

Similar legislation, proposing to spend $7 million wildlife crossings, was still in committee when the Legislature’s short 2022 session adjourned.

The Oregon Department of Transportation recorded 4,874 wildlife-vehicle collisions in 2022.

And studies show that close to three times as many incidents aren’t reported, according to a press release from Helm’s office.

The total cost when a vehicle hits a deer averages about $17,000, including vehicle repairs and medical costs, and the lost of hunting value since the animal rarely survives.

The cost from a collision with an elk is much higher, with an average of $56,800.

“Already a species in decline, mule deer casualties from collisions with vehicles significantly harm our efforts to help them recover” said Tim Greseth, executive director of the Oregon Wildlife Foundation. “Interactions with wildlife on roadways also result in injuries and, tragically, fatalities of motorists.”

Oregon, with five wildlife crossings, has relatively few compared with other western states. Colorado has 65 such structures, Utah and California have 50 each, and Nevada has 23.

Helm and other proponents of his legislation have pointed out that wildlife crossings have proved to be effective at saving animals.

The state installed both an underpass and fencing along Highway 97 near Sunriver in 2012, and the result was an 86% decline in reported collisions over seven years.

Top priorities for future projects, based on the number of collisions reported, include Interstate 84 near Meacham, which is a major elk travel corridor, Highway 26 near Dayville in Grant County, Highway 20 in Deschutes County, and Highway 140 near Klamath Falls.

Projects underway include additional crossings on Highway 97, Interstate 5 through the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument near the California border, and Highway 20 on the Burns Paiute Tribe’s land in Malheur County.

Helm’s bill, in addition to setting aside $5 million for wildlife crossings, could help the state leverage considerably more federal money.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which Congress passed in 2021, includes $350 million in competitive grants for states, Tribes and cities.

Reducing vehicle collisions isn’t the only potential benefit of wildlife crossings, said Tyler Dungannon, conservation coordinator for the Oregon Hunters Association.

“Migratory wildlife need to move seasonally, and highways can be barriers that restrict these essential movements, so the issue extends far beyond direct wildlife mortality on roads,” Dungannon said. “Highways are limiting wildlife population growth rates via wildlife-vehicle collisions as well as inhibiting wildlife migration.”

A 2020 poll commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 86% of Oregonians surveyed, from across the state and across the political spectrum, supported the state building more wildlife crossings.

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