Back to Landscape: Southern Oregon Alliance Moves Ahead with I-5 Wildlife Crossings

One morning in late March, Charlie Shells, an ecologist with the Bureau of Land Management, walked across a steel railroad bridge that spans Interstate 5 near the summit of Siskiyou, four and a half miles from the Oregon-California border. Pebbles crushed under his feet with the roar of an uninterrupted river of cars and trucks below. At the end of the bridge, Shiels put his backpack and opened the cable that was securing the trail camera to a tree.

“Let’s see what we have,” said Shiels, pulling out the memory card. It contained 51 videos. Click through them.

“There’s a deer…another deer, a train,” he said, walking around. “There is a man walking his dog—I see him every day. There is one deer, two, three, four, heading east.”

Schelz has set up nearly a dozen of these cameras along wildlife trails near drainage ditches and vehicular bridges that pass over and under I-5. By observing these sites, which stretch from Nile Creek just outside Ashland to the California border, he hopes to better understand which animals use existing lanes to safely traverse the busy highway.

Bureau of Land Management ecologist Charlie Shells checks a track camera near I-5 to gather information about future wildlife crossing sites.

Bureau of Land Management ecologist Charlie Shells checks a track camera near I-5 to gather information about future wildlife crossing sites.

Juliette Grable / JBR

Shells is part of the Southern Oregon Wildlife Alliance. They are a group of scientists, agency representatives, and hunting, fishing and wildlife advocates who seek to create new structures and enhance existing ones so that animals can safely cross I-5 in the Siskiyou summit area. This section of the highway includes a very steep slope as it cuts through mountainous terrain. The highway divides the Cascade-Siskiyo National Monument, which is dedicated to the diversity of wildlife, insects, and plant communities, representing a deep barrier for many animals—from bears, deer, and cougars to fish, frogs, and foxes—as they try to move from one part of their habitat to another.

“It’s not just about your wildlife barrier,” says Jack Williams, emeritus scientist at Trout Unlimited and one of the founding members of the coalition. “It’s loud and screeching; there’s a lot of vibration, and she sees tens of thousands of vehicles a day. Some animals skip – some get beaten up – but a lot of them get away.”

Amy Emrein, who served as a field representative for U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley for 12 years, offered to lead the coalition and help seek funding opportunities.

“It’s always been in my mind that we need to do something about it,” says Amrheen, who also serves as the coalition’s volunteer coordinator. “When I saw President Biden get serious about the infrastructure bill, I saw an opportunity with the money coming into Oregon to get some planning done.”

The alliance began with a handful of local conservation leaders, including Dave Willis, who advocated for the memorial, which was appointed in 2000. It has since swelled to 18 members. Although the Oregon Department of Transportation is ultimately responsible for implementing the projects on the I-5 corridor, the alliance is working with the agency to develop “shovel-ready” projects. Earlier this year, they won a $50,000 grant from the Oregon Water Improvement Board to help fund a feasibility study to investigate potential sites. In March, they hired Samara Group, a Portland-based environmental consultancy, and River Design Group, a design consultancy specializing in restoration projects, to lead the study.

Analysis of the human impact on animals

On that day in March, Shells visited a small stream near the Pacific Crest Trail, a lower bridge at the motorway exit of Mount Ashland, and a site near the California border called Bear Gulch, where there are great culvert tunnels across the slope of the hill well below the rough highway . Schelz’s cameras spotted a variety of animals there, including bobcat hunters and Pacific hunters.

“It’s a really good place,” says Shiels. “You’re far from the noise, and it’s a nice big tunnel.”

Trail cameras have spied on bears, cougars, bobcats, raccoons, skunks, weasels, and plenty of deer and foxes. They’ll stay in place for at least a full year, so the group can see which animals use different locations during the seasons.

While it is always exciting to find out what the cameras captured, someone has to sift through hundreds of videos and thousands of still photos. Dr. Karen Mager, Professor in Southern Oregon University’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Sustainability, has enlisted two undergraduates, Alex Zenore and Maya Smith, to help with the monumental task. As part of major graduation projects, Zenor and Smith analyzed data from Schelz’s cameras, along with some of the data they and Dr. Mager installed.

They discovered that while some sites, including Bear Gulch, are used by an impressive variety of genres, others see more traffic overall.

“We had some sites that were almost exclusively used by deer, but they were used at really high rates,” Mager says. “And we know from vehicle collision data that deer are the most common animal that cars hit, causing the most harm to animals and humans.”

A tunnel located under I-5 near Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

A tunnel located under I-5 near Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

Juliette Grable / JBR

According to data from ODOT, between 2016 and 2020, vehicles collided with 161 deer over the 15-mile stretch between Ashland and the California border. And these are just the incidents that have been reported. These collisions are not only dangerous, they are also expensive. ODOT claims that every time a car hits a deer, the combination of emergency response, towing, repairs and medical expenses costs $6,617. When it comes to hitting an elk, the average cost goes up to $17483.

Planned wildlife crossings work. A series of projects along Highway 97 South Bend have improved the lives of mule deer trying to cross the busy road. The improvements, which include a new underbreeding designed specifically for wildlife, have reduced vehicle-to-wildlife collisions by 86 percent since their completion in 2012. Nearly 30 different species have been documented using the crossings.

Zinnor and Smith presented their findings to faculty and students at the end of the spring semester. They also shared their data with the Samara Group. Other students expressed interest in continuing their work.

“It’s great that you mentor undergraduate students who are really taking the lead in doing this very useful work for the region,” says Mager.

Hone in strategies

In June, the coalition gathered at Sampson Creek Preserve near Ashland to begin mapping out design strategies for eight wildlife crossing sites along I-5. Leslie Bliss-Ketchum, director of the Samara Group, and Melanie Clem, chief engineer at River Design Group, directed the effort. The goal was to come up with up to three alternatives for each location.

The coalition is not advocating for a single structure, but rather for a group of projects that will collectively improve “habitat permeability” across I-5. Options range from simple repairs such as planting vegetation on both sides of an existing stream to building an entirely new bridge. At a location like the Mount Ashland Exit Trail, which is heavily used by deer, the group likely wouldn’t recommend changing the physical structure, says Bliss Ketchum. “It’s more about adding a fence to pass wildlife through and making some changes to the habitat to help support more diverse groups of animals.”

Some animals are more satisfying than others. Birds avoid noisy roadsides. Salamanders may be confused due to the dark environment within the culvert. Deer do not like artificial light. Raccoons and foxes enter sewers easily, but other small mammals may not enter unless they have a dry edge or places to hide from predators. The distance between crossings on the same stretch of highway is also important because larger animals such as deer and cougars can travel longer distances to reach crossings than “babies,” says Bliss Ketchum.

BLM ecologist Charlie Shells stands in a large well that passes under I-5 in Bear Gulch near the California border.

BLM ecologist Charlie Shells stands in a large well that passes under I-5 in Bear Gulch near the California border.

Juliette Grable / JBR

“When you think about all the different animals that a road as big as I-5 might block, having frequent opportunities really helps support species diversity,” she says.

While Bliss-Ketchum addresses environmental issues, Klym helps the group understand the logistical challenges of the trail’s highly eroded geology and steep terrain.

“We like to say that Leslie is helping with the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, and I’m helping figure out the ‘how,'” says Clem. “This includes looking at the potential cost of the project, but also knowing where to put materials, minimizing disruptions in traffic, and working with Tribes to protect cultural resources.

In some cases, the group might recommend extending an existing stream or replacing the stream with a bridge, especially if they can make backpacking improvements for wildlife at work, ODOT would probably do anyway. For example, an ODOT representative of the group recently showed two prairie near the California border that had become clogged with silt and debris.

Bliss-Ketchum says ODOT should address this issue. “How can we then double our interest and make it better for wildlife at the same time?”

When the alliance meets again in August, they will research the alternatives and choose the best for each location. This fall, they’ll summarize their plan for the entire corridor in a conceptual design report. Then, engineering and design work can begin on projects that ODOT decides to tackle.

Meanwhile, ODOT has applied for a $500,000 grant through the America the Beautiful Challenge, a new public-private grant program hosted by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation created specifically for conservation and restoration projects. ODOT wants to replace the stream that currently passes Nile Creek under I-5 five miles north of Ashland. The turbulent and fast-moving waters within the channel make it difficult for local fish such as coho salmon and steelhead to access the clean, cool waters above. replacing the structure with a bridge, which will allow the current to flow normally, will help the fish to navigate in it; The riverbed will also give terrestrial animals a safe way to pass under the bridge.

With climate change, Williams says, the momentum for these projects is becoming more urgent.

“We are dealing with increased droughts and wildfires and reduced ice density; all of this translates to changes in habitat,” says Williams. “The animals must be able to move around the landscape, and climate change is only increasing these demands.”

Fortunately, this is the time to cross Oregon’s wildlife. In addition to the America the Beautiful Challenge, the Biden Infrastructure and Jobs Act allocated $350 million for a wildlife corridor pilot program, and in March the Oregon legislature passed a bill that would allocate $7 million for wildlife corridor projects, which will be administered by ODOT.

Projects in southern Oregon are likely to attract funding, Williams says, adding that many of the people who lead this part of I-5 recognize the need for a safe wildlife corridor.

“One of the amazing things about working with Wildlife Crossing is that it seems to be supported by just about everyone,” Williams says. “In this day and age where politics is so divisive, it’s refreshing to work on a cause that has such broad support.”

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