The below is a piece I authored today for Conservation Northwest:
Conservationists celebrate major milestone for habitat connectivity in the Pacific Northwest
From elk and black bears to rare wolves and wolverines, wildlife are on the move in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. But for decades Interstate 90 has been a serious barrier to creatures traveling through some of the state’s richest habitat, impacting wildlife populations and putting both motorists and animals in danger.
A project that broke ground on Tuesday, June 9th plans to change that.
Thanks to advocacy from Conservation Northwest, leadership from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and support from a broad coalition of organizations, businesses and state and federal agencies, wild animals will soon be getting their own bridge, dubbed the Price/Noble Wildlife Overcrossing, over the busy freeway east of Snoqualmie Pass.
“I-90 has a tremendous impact on wildlife because it’s carrying over 28,000 vehicles a day bisecting the Cascades,” said Jen Watkins of Conservation Northwest, coordinator for the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition. “If we prevent them from moving, we’re blocking their ability to find food, we’re blocking their ability to find new places to live when conditions change, like the large wildfires we saw last year, and we’re blocking their ability to find new mates and have some genetic diversity in the population.”
Watkins believes the I-90 wildlife overcrossing and recently completed wildlife undercrossings are a monumental step forward for wildlife and habitat in the Pacific Northwest region.
Speaking at Tuesday’s groundbreaking, Jason Kuiken, deputy forest supervisor of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, said projects like the I-90 overcrossing help reconnect fish and wildlife habitat and exemplify the mission of the Forest Service.
“This is truly an exceptional project that extends well beyond the place we are today, “said Kuiken.
For over a decade, Conservation Northwest has led efforts to protect, connect and restore habitat in the Snoqualmie Pass corridor. After years of advocating for safe wildlife crossings under and over I-90, the regional non-profit organization is thrilled to reach this important milestone.
Conservation Northwest also administers the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition, a diverse group of endorsing businesses, conservation and civic organizations that advocate for the wildlife crossings project. The Coalition grew out of The Cascades Conservation Partnership, a four-year campaign led by Conservation Northwest that played a key role in acquiring and protecting over 34,000 acres of forest habitat in the Snoqualmie Pass corridor from 2000-2004.
Using trail cameras and the support of enthusiastic volunteers, the organization is monitoring wildlife traveling through the Snoqualmie Pass area, as well restoring habitat and native vegetation near the new crossing structures. Monitoring data helped inform the locations of the wildlife crossings and helps to illustrate the wildlife active in the surrounding area.
Part of Phase 2 of WSDOT’s I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East Project, the Price/Noble Wildlife Overcrossing will be the first over a major highway or freeway in Washington state. One of the largest and most ambitious wildlife crossing structures built in the country to date, it will reconnect vital habitat on either side of one of the nation’s busiest mountain passes.
“This project is a shining example of WSDOT’s future direction. It embraces our values, goals and strategies for a safe transportation system that improves mobility and supports economic growth,” said Cam Gilmour, WSDOT deputy secretary of transportation.
Several major wildlife underpasses have already been completed during Phase 1 of the project, and remote cameras show many of them are already in use by creatures big and small.
When finished, the section of I-90 from Snoqualmie Pass to Easton will include more than 20 underpasses and overpasses for wildlife, fish and amphibians, including endangered or threatened species such as bull trout and wolverines. Dozens of small culverts and creek crossings will also be rebuilt or expanded.
“We think this is going to make a lot of difference for wildlife,” said WSDOT project manager Brian White in a Seattle Times interview.
As if to underscore the importance of the wildlife crossings project, an elk was killed by a vehicle on I-90 early Tuesday morning at Price Creek. The collision happened just yards from where the new overcrossing is now under construction.
Motorists, truckers and businesses across the region will benefit from the project as well. The Snoqualmie Pass East Project includes adding two new lanes to the interstate, stabilizing rock slopes, constructing new avalanche bridges and straightening hazardous curves.
The entire project is expected to cost close to $1 billion, funded primarily through a gas tax imposed by the state legislature in 2005. The Price/Noble Wildlife Overcrossing is budgeted at $6.2 million. Construction is scheduled to be complete in 2019.