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I-90 coyote trail to success

Posted by Barbara Christensen at Jan 20, 2012 12:30 PM |

A lot of our success is measured by dry forest acres restored, better wildlife management policies passed, and, well, sometimes simply successful phone calls. Maybe not thrilling Friday blog material, but of course important. Today, however, our success is measured by a coyote. And not so much by the coyote, really, as where it went for a walk.

I-90 coyote trail to success

Something as simple as tracks in the snow speaks volumes to the potential connections on the landscape when transportation is planned thoughtfully. When this underpass is done, wildlife have a way to cross safely. (Photo: Brian Booth, CCWMP 2012)

Update: King 5 featured our story! Video, below.

A lot of our success is measured by dry forest acres restored, better wildlife management policies passed, and sometimes just successful meetings. Maybe not thrilling Friday blog material, but of course important to connecting wild habitat.

Today, however, our success is measured by a coyote.

And not so much by the coyote, really, as where it went for a walk.

Our volunteer Brian was near Gold Creek, tracking critters where the state is currently building an underpass that will give wildlife safe crossing under the newly expanded I-90. Our winter tracking program trains volunteers like Brian to collect wildlife data in this important link between the North and Central Cascades.

While investigating his study area, Brian noted signs and tracks from mule deer, coyote, and bobcat traveling in various directions. He found tracks from a beaver dragging a willow tree towards a pond, too. A good showing as far as a day in the field is concerned.

Then he followed a long coyote track cutting through new snow in open areas. In its travels, the canid meandered near the highway and then crossed a frozen pond. And here is where its trip got exciting: the coyote then ambled straight through the partially completed I-90 wildlife underpass. Brian noted this in his report as the "most significant find of the day." We'd say so, too.

What a success that the I-90 crossings aren't yet complete, and already wildlife are using them!

The underpass isn't complete on both sides of the highway, so the coyote had to then cross the west-bound lanes. Brian's expert tracking skills told the tale from there,

Although the photos show the danger and risk of crossing the highway, the discovery of the tracks was exciting, as it documented an animal intentionally diverting its route to use the new underpass...  The coyote accelerated to a gallop just prior to entering the underpass, which indicated to me it was familiar with using the underpass, as a burst of speed is needed to ascend the earth berm, jump into the roadway and leap over the New Jersey barriers.

Tracks do tell great tales!

The next trail could be over, not under

We're optimistic that the next crossing structure--Washington's first ever wildlife bridge--will see such an early success as well. This past week Governor Gregoire included funding for the wildlife overpass in her transportation plan, in what could be  seen as a resounding recommendation for legislators to connect wildlife habitat in the Cascades.

I wonder what critter will be the first to test that new bridge out?

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Thrilling wildlife tales!

Posted by Erin Moore at Jan 20, 2012 06:40 PM
Animal tales more thrilling than an action film in some stuffy art house! Indeed, the tales that tracks - and trackers - do tell... It show that we just need to give wildlife the chance to cross safely, and they will.

wildlife crossing

Posted by jason at Feb 10, 2012 04:26 PM
Such good news hearing about the underpass and the possibility of a wildlife bridge over I-90. Seems like such a little thing - yet it will make an enormous impact on the safety of our great number of animal species. I miss Washington and am proud that my home state is keeping it real and getting it done...

wildlife underpasses

Posted by Kirk Hinkley at Feb 13, 2012 12:47 PM
It seems to me that three obvious things with these underpasses for wildlife are apparent. First, the expense is incredible and burdensome especially in this economy. We hear that education is suffering for lack of funds, and yet money is budgeted for these projects.

Secondly, how far, realistically, can anyone expect wildlife to divert to an underpass. The cost per "wildlife unit" is too large and there will be too little gain to justify them. It is doubtful if elk or deer or bobcats are going to divert 3 or 4 miles to use them. However, if they do concentrate from miles around in their use of those bypasses, what kind of unnatural biological and ecological pressures will affect the populations? What percentage of the highway needs to have safe bypasses in existence in order for local populations of wildlife to be effectively affected in a positive manner, and what would the costs of this be?

Lastly, will predators key on these areas if their prey species in the local area effectively use them, thereby creating an unatural situation in that localized area with essentially an ambush zone provided to predators?

Response to message

Posted by Jen Watkins at Feb 13, 2012 03:50 PM
Hi Kirk,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and concerns on wildlife underpasses. There are a few things to consider when thinking about the economics of wildlife underpasses that help us to view them as a cost savings rather than an unnecessary expense.

* In projects like the I-90 project, the underpass is actually included in a larger highway project that is addressing multiple issues. So the Gold Creek underpass is being constructed as the whole roadway is being torn up to add lanes, straighten curves, improve traffic flow. Provided a longer bridge or multiple culverts under the roadway in such a large project is efficient and allows us to make the roadway safer for people and wildlife, while meeting other needs.
* In all areas where we look to place wildlife underpasses we use science, a close look at the landscape, and roadkill information to see that in fact these are areas of the roadway where wildlife are already trying to cross. Therefore, we are certain that in that location these structures can help to make the roadway safer for wildlife and people than it is today.
* Creating these safer roadways with these structures now, helps us save money in accidents and carcass removals from vehicle-animal collisions pretty quickly. We can see the drop in accidents pretty dramatically where underpasses with combined fencing have been placed around the country.
* Underpasses specifically can often be tied to fish passage projects that our state is legally obligated to fund, so where streams and rivers intersect our road system we often have an opportunity to provide better passage for not only fish but wildlife as well.

The funds that we tap into to construct these projects are in completely separate budgets from education and social programs, which we agree are in need of additional dollars. Depending on the location and circumstances, projects are funded through the transportation budget (i.e. I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East) or can be funded through specific competitive grant programs like Transportation Enhancements.

To ensure that we are only spending money where we can be sure of success, there is a wealth of science and ground truthing before any investment is made. On I-90 decades of science including our own citizen monitoring have documented where wildlife are already trying to cross the roadway, and therefore where a crossing structure can facilitate a safer crossing. Statewide, WSDOT utilizes roadkill data and scientific models to help guide investments.

We participate in conferences and research to better understand these issues and questions like you pose about predators. To date the science is pretty clear that well located structures with associated fencing absolutely improve safer passage for motorists and wildlife. Research on how they may influence the dynamics and distribution of species is underway, but currently on structures we already have in place in Washington we do not see predators ambushing prey within or immediately at the exit of these structures. We do see documented successful crossings by wildlife. Some great information is available on WSDOT's webpage at http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/[…]/bio_esa.htm#HabitatConn

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