Producer: Vince Patton, Videographers: Todd Sonflieth, Corky Miller, Michael Bendixen, Editor: Michael Bendixen
Additional Photos & Video: Oregon Dept. of Transportation Oregon State Police, Parks Canada: Banff National Park
When deer need to get where they’re going, they often must conquer an obstacle course of fences and roads.
Miles upon miles of human made barriers snake across even the most wide-open landscape.
The deadliest obstacles they confront are dangerous, virtual walls of flying metal: highways full of high-speed traffic.
“You have stranded herds of animals,” says Kevin Halesworth, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Transportation. “As the traffic level increases, the deer are less able to cross the highway until it gets to a point where from studies, the deer just won’t cross at all any more. “
Every year in Oregon, hundreds of vehicles hit wild animals.
The collisions can cause severe injuries or deaths to the passengers, and the animals seldom ever survive.
Highway 97 south of bend has been considered a hot spot for wildlife collisions.
To combat that, the ODOT built an underpass just for the animals south of Bend, near Sunriver.
Halesworth says, “Most people probably don’t even know it’s there. They would just drive straight over the top of it and not even see it.”
Oregon is imitating Canada. In one of the most spectacular places in North America, Banff is known not just for its wildness.
It’s also filled with 44 bridges built exclusively for wildlife.
They’ve been a tremendous success.
In 15 years, Parks Canada estimates that deer, moose, bear, cougars, elk and more have made 150,000 safe crossings.
In Oregon, ODOT built one an underpass just for wildlife.
Kevin Halesworth wondered how long they’d have to wait to see results.
ODOT had its answer instantly.
“As soon as it was constructed there were deer going under it,” says Halesworth. “We’ve had a lot less collisions. We’ve had a huge increase in use. We’ve seen a large number of mule deer moving from summer to winter range during migration period.”
Crews installed four miles of tall fences along both sides of the highway.
Animals encounter that fence and search for an opening to get through. There isn’t any – until they reach the underpass.
Still, some animals wander up the road itself on the wrong side of the fence.
For them, ODOT has built one-way emergency exit ramps highly camouflaged to the human eye.
They run up from the road and over the fence, back into the forest.
They call them ‘jump outs.’
Jump outs slope up - then stop, like a cliff.
They’re not too tall for the average deer to hop down to safety… but when approached from the woods, they’re certainly too tall to jump up into the road area.
Still, ODOT is tweaking their design.
Halesworth says, “We keep making them better and better and then we learn something else just when you think you’ve got it dialed in, you learn again.”
There are so many electronic eyes watching the crossings, the N.S.A. would be proud.
Jon Nelson, a biologist intern with ODOT says, “I think we have 26 cameras throughout the project and I check them once every two weeks.”
Jon has scanned through thousands of photos that show deer, bobcat, raccoon, turkey, weasel, badger, coyotes, bears and more use the crossing.
Says Nelson, “We also had a bobcat that was not only using the structure to cross the highway, he was actively hunting in here and we have pictures of him capturing prey.”
The crossing is about far more than simply trying to prevent damage to cars.
Deer need the help. Mule deer populations have declined dramatically.
Halesworth says, “The numbers are estimated at around 200,000 in this state right now and they were a lot higher than that just 20 years ago, maybe almost double that actually.”
Mule deer west of the Cascades typically migrate between the mountains in the summer and the lower elevation lands in the winter. Highway 97 presents a stark barrier in that journey.
ODOT’s first crossing appears to be making a difference.
The Sunriver Nature Center has noticed it. The center has raptors in its care and has permission to pick up road kill to bring back and feed to its animals.
Naturalist Kody Osborne says the center now has to drive farther away to find any of that fresh meat.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a carcass in that section in a couple of years,” Osborne says.
ODOT has a design in mind for a second crossing on highway 97 near milepost 190.
This time it’ll be a bridge disguised as naturally as possible over the cars.
Elk may prefer that design, as they seem reluctant to go under an overpass without a clear view of what’s beyond.
Says Halesworth, “Every animal that uses the crossing is a potential collision avoided as far as I’m concerned. That’s a good thing for humans and animals alike.”