Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

With passage of I-976, wildlife crossings in Okanogan Valley in limbo

Fencing installed by Conservation Northwest keeps deer from Highway 97 in the Okanogan Valley. (Jay Kehne / COURTESY)

A measure restricting statewide vehicle registration fees will hamper efforts to reduce deer-vehicle collisions in the Okanogan Valley.

“We don’t know when we will be able to get those dollars set aside in the Legislature at this point,” said Jay Kehne, a Conservation Northwest staff member based in Omak, Washington. “We’ll just keep trying.”

Since 2018, CNW has been working to build wildlife crossings over Highway 97. Each year, 350 or more deer are hit and killed on about a 12-mile stretch of the highway, which runs through the Okanogan Valley. Some research indicates the number could be much higher.

Those collisions cost about $2 million a year and endanger human and animal life.

The planned undercrossings, along with associated fencing and other needs, would cost roughly $12 million. CNW and the Mule Deer Foundation raised roughly $200,000.

But despite widespread community and political support, the Legislature did not allocate funds for the project in 2019, CNW spokesman Chase Gunnell said.

“There was zero new funding for any new transportation projects,” he said.

Funding the project will only be harder after Tuesday’s election. Just over 55% of Washington voters approved I-976, a ballot measure that limits vehicle registration fees to $30.

“After Tuesday’s election, the transportation budget is going to be really, really competitive,” Gunnell said.

This fall, CNW started some work on the project using the $200,000.

With that, it improved the underpass of an existing bridge – the Janis Bridge – which animals already use as a travel route.

CNW also fenced a mile of highway south of that in an effort of funneling the deer under the bridge.

Kehne estimates that work alone will prevent more than 100 collisions a year.

“We’re pretty proud we got done what we did get done with that money,” he said.

Still, with the passage of I-976, the future of the project remains unclear.

“We’re in a bit of a conundrum,” Gunnell said.

Work on the I-90 wildlife crossings at Snoqualimie Pass connecting the north and south Cascades will continue. So far, one overcrossing and more than 20 undercrossings have been completed. Phase 2 of the project will include another overcrossing. That project is funded with a mix of federal and state money, which has already been allocated to the project, Gunnell said.

The I-90 project was initially modeled after an underpass and overpass in Banff National Park, which crosses over the Trans-Canada Highway.

Since that overpass opened 20 years ago, it’s estimated that 152,000 animals have crossed safely. Freeways and roads have long disrupted natural animal migration paths, leading to increased mortality and fragmented habitats.