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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Wildlife crossing project on Highway 97 may receive $18 million from legislature

Conservation Northwest installed fencing to keep deer from crossing Highway 97.  (Jay Kehne)

A wildlife crossing project in the Okanogan Valley may get $18 million in state money.

The Washington State senate and house proposed transportation budgets include $18 million to build six wildlife underpasses and 11 miles of deer fencing on Highway 97 between Janis Bridge and the town of Riverside.

Where the money will come from is still unclear, but it’s a step in the right direction, supporters of the project said.

“Now the state has to figure out how to pay for all that,” said Chase Gunnell, a spokesman for Conservation Northwest. “We are really happy with the bipartisan support for this project in particular.”

Since 2018, CNW has worked 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 crossing work was imperiled in 2019 when voters approved a measure restricting statewide vehicle registration fees.

The planned undercrossings, along with associated fencing and other needs, will cost roughly $12 million.

CNW, the Mule Deer Foundation, the Colville Confederated Tribes and others raised $200,000 and started work on the project in 2019.

That phase of work concluded in September .

The legislative support, if funded, will allow the Washington Department of Transportation to continue work along another 11 miles of Highway 97.

“After more than five years of work by the local community, Okanogan Trails Chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation, Conservation Northwest, Colville Tribes, WSDOT and other partners, including installing the first mile of deer fencing and renovating Janis Bridge to serve as a wildlife crossing, it’s so gratifying to see the Safe Passage 97 project fully funded in the state transportation packages,” said Jay Kehne, CNW’s Sagelands Program Lead based in Omak in an emailed statement.

“Most everyone in my community has a story about hitting a deer on this stretch of Highway 97,” Kehne said. “And whether they’re a local landowner, hunter, tribal member, city or county council member or state legislator, the Okanogan Valley community fully supports this project to improve motorist safety and end this needless loss of life.”

The first phase of work is expected to prevent more than 100 deer-vehicle collisions per year. The next public phase of the Safe Passage 97 project is estimated to prevent an additional 244 vehicle-animal collisions per year.

Legislatures also proposed $3.4 million in funding for a wildlife crossing project on I-90 designed to connect the north and south Cascade mountains. Although construction finished in 2018, some work is ongoing. The I-90 project was initially modeled after an underpass and overpass in Banff National Park, which crosses over the Trans-Canada Highway.

Freeways and roads have long disrupted natural animal migration paths, leading to increased mortality and fragmented habitats.