One morning in late March, Charlie Schelz, an ecologist with the Bureau of Land Management, hiked across a steel railroad bridge that spans Interstate 5 near Siskiyou Summit, four-and-a-half miles from the Oregon-California border. Gravel crunched under his feet as a ceaseless river of cars and trucks roared below. At the end of the bridge, Schelz set down his backpack and unlocked the cable that secured a trail camera to a tree.
“Let’s see what we’ve got,” said Schelz, popping out the memory card. It contained 51 video clips. He clicked through them.
“There’s a deer…another deer, a train,” he said, scrolling. “There’s a guy walking his dog — I see him every day. There’s one, two, three, four deer, heading east.”
Schelz has set up nearly a dozen such cameras along wildlife trails near drainage culverts and vehicle bridges that pass over and under I-5. By monitoring these sites, which span from Neil Creek just outside of Ashland to the California border, he hopes to better understand which animals are using existing corridors to safely traverse the busy highway.
Schelz is part of the Southern Oregon Wildlife Crossing Coalition. They are a group of scientists, agency representatives, and hunting, fishing, and wildlife advocates seeking to create new structures and enhance existing ones so that animals can safely cross I-5 in the Siskiyou Summit region. This section of highway includes a dangerous, steep downgrade as it cuts through mountainous terrain. The interstate bisects the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which was designated for its diversity of wildlife, insects, and plant communities, representing a profound barrier to the many animals — from bears, deer, and cougars to fish, frogs and foxes —attempting to get from one part of their habitat to another.
“It’s not just your run-of-the-mill wildlife barrier,” says Jack Williams, an emeritus scientist for Trout Unlimited and one of the founding members of the coalition. “It’s noisy; there’s a lot of vibration, and it sees tens of thousands of vehicles daily. Some animals do cross — some get hit — but a lot of them just turn away.”
Amy Amrhein, who served as field representative for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley for 12 years, offered to lead the coalition and help look for funding opportunities.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind that we need to do something about this,” says Amrhein, who also serves as the coalition’s volunteer coordinator. “When I saw President Biden getting serious about an infrastructure bill, I saw an opportunity with money coming into Oregon to get some planning done.”
The coalition started with a handful of local conservation leaders, including Dave Willis, who advocated for the creation of the monument, which was designated in 2000. It has since swelled to 18 members. Though the Oregon Department of Transportation is ultimately responsible for implementing projects on the I-5 corridor, the coalition is working with the agency to develop “shovel-ready” projects. Earlier this year, they won a $50,000 grant from the Oregon Water Enhancement Board to help fund a feasibility study to investigate possible sites. In March, they hired Samara Group, a Portland-based environmental consulting firm, and River Design Group, a consulting firm specializing in designing restoration projects, in leading the study.
Analyzing the animal-human impact
On that day in March, Schelz visited a small culvert near the Pacific Crest Trail, a bridge underpass at the Mt. Ashland highway exit, and a site near the California border called Bear Gulch, where a large culvert tunnels through the hillside far below the thrumming highway. Schelz’s cameras have spotted a wide variety of animals there, including a bobcat and Pacific fisher.
“It’s a really good spot,” says Schelz. “You’re far from the noise, and it’s a nice big tunnel.”
The trail cameras have spied on bears, cougars, bobcats, raccoons, skunks, a weasel, and lots of deer and foxes. They will remain in place for at least a full year, so the group can learn what animals are using different sites through the seasons.
While it’s always exciting to discover what the cameras have captured, someone has to sift through the hundreds of videos and thousands of still images. Dr. Karen Mager, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Sustainability at Southern Oregon University, recruited two undergraduate students, Alex Zenor and Maya Smith, to help with the monumental task. As part of their senior capstone projects, Zenor and Smith analyzed the data from Schelz’s cameras, along with some they and Dr. Mager installed.
They discovered that while some sites, including Bear Gulch, are being used by an impressive variety of species, others see more traffic overall.
“We had some sites that were used almost exclusively by deer, but they were used at really high rates,” says Mager. “And we know from vehicle collision data that deer are the most common animal being hit by cars, causing the most damage to animals and people.”
According to data from ODOT, between 2016 and 2020, 161 deer were hit by vehicles in the 15-mile stretch between Ashland and the California border. And those are just the incidents that were reported. These collisions aren’t just dangerous, they’re expensive. ODOT claims that every time a vehicle collides with a deer, the combination of emergency response, towing, repairs and medical expenses costs $6,617. When the collision involves an elk, the average cost spikes to $17,483.
Planned wildlife crossings work. A series of projects on a stretch of Highway 97 just south of Bend have greatly improved life for mule deer attempting to cross the busy thoroughfare. The improvements, which include a new undercrossing built exclusively for wildlife, have reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions by 86 percent since they were completed in 2012. Nearly 30 different species have been documented using the crossings.
Zenor 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 have expressed interest in carrying on their work.
“It’s wonderful to be mentoring undergraduate students who are really taking the lead on doing this work that is so helpful for the region,” says Mager.
Honing in on strategies
In June, the Coalition gathered at the Sampson Creek Preserve near Ashland to begin sketching out design strategies for eight wildlife crossing sites along I-5. Leslie Bliss-Ketchum, director at Samara Group, and Melanie Klym, senior engineer at River Design Group, guided the effort. The goal was to come up with up to three alternatives for each site.
The coalition is not advocating for a single structure, but rather a set of projects which collectively will improve “habitat permeability” across I-5. Options range from simple fixes like planting vegetation on either side of an existing culvert to the construction of an entirely new bridge. At a site like the Mt. Ashland exit underpass, which is heavily used by deer, the group likely won’t recommend altering the physical structure, says Bliss-Ketchum. “It’s more about adding fencing to funnel wildlife through it and making some habitat changes to help support a more diverse groups of animals.”
Some animals are pickier than others. Birds avoid noisy roadsides. Salamanders may be confused by the dark environment inside a culvert. Deer don’t like artificial light. Raccoons and foxes readily enter culverts, but other small mammals may not unless they have a dry ledge or places to hide from predators. The distance between crossings on the same stretch of highway also matters as large animals like deer and cougars can travel longer distances to access crossings than the “little guys,” says Bliss-Ketchum.
“When thinking about all the different animals that may be blocked by a large road like I-5, having frequent opportunities really helps support a diversity of species,” she says.
While Bliss-Ketchum addresses the ecological issues, Klym is helping the group understand the logistical challenges of the corridor’s highly erodible geology and steep terrain.
“We like to say that Leslie helps with the ‘what’ and the ‘why,’ and I help figure out the ‘how,’” says Klym. This includes considering a project’s potential cost, but also figuring out where to stage materials, minimizing disruptions to traffic, and working with tribes to protect cultural resources.
In some cases, the group may recommend enlarging an existing culvert or replacing a culvert with a bridge, especially if they can piggyback improvements for wildlife onto work ODOT is likely to undertake anyway. For example, an ODOT representative recently showed the group two culverts near the California border that have become clogged with silt and debris.
ODOT will have to address this issue, says Bliss-Ketchum. “How can we then double our benefit and make them better for wildlife at the same time?”
When the coalition meets again in August, they will go through the alternatives and select the best one for each site. This fall, they will summarize their plan for the entire corridor in a conceptual design report. Then, engineering and design work can begin on the projects 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 a culvert that currently funnels Neil Creek under I-5 just five miles north of Ashland. The turbulent, swift-moving water inside the culvert makes it hard for native fish like Coho salmon and steelhead to access the clean, cold water above it. Replacing the structure with a bridge, which would allow the stream to flow more naturally, would help fish navigate it; the streamside would also give terrestrial animals a safe way to pass under the bridge.
With climate change, the impetus for these projects is only becoming more urgent, says Williams.
“We’re dealing with increasing drought, wildfires, and reduced snowpack; all of that translates into changes in habitats,” says Williams. “Animals need to be able to move around the landscape, and climate change just increases those demands.”
Fortunately, it’s a good time for wildlife crossings in Oregon. In addition to the America the Beautiful Challenge, Biden’s Infrastructure and Jobs Act have allocated $350 million for a Wildlife Crossing Pilot Program, and this March the Oregon Legislature passed a bill allocating $7 million for wildlife corridor projects, which ODOT will administer.
The projects in Southern Oregon are likely to attract funding, says Williams, adding that many of the people who drive this stretch of I-5 recognize the need for safe wildlife passage.
“One of the amazing things about wildlife crossing work is that it seems to be supported by almost everyone,” says Williams. “In this day and age where politics are so divisive, it’s refreshing to work on an issue that has such broad support.”