BEND — The COVID-19 pandemic may not have felt like a reprieve for most of us, but parts of it were just that for any wildlife crossing Oregon highways and byways.
Central Oregon saw fewer vehicle-wildlife crashes during the pandemic, although the region remains one of the state’s hotspots for collisions with animals, and the need for preventative measures will become more important as the climate changes.
Oregon stands out among West Coast states with the highest likelihood of wildlife crashes, and the fourth-highest likelihood of crashes among Western states, according to a State Farm Insurance analysis of claim data from 2020 and 2021.
Deschutes County ranks third in the average number of wildlife collisions reported annually to the Oregon Department of Transportation from 2015 to 2020, behind Douglas and Klamath counties.
“Part of the reason Central Oregon is a hotspot for that is twofold. Half of it is due to the biology of the species,” said Andrew Walch, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
November sees the most vehicle-on-animal accidents, and in Central Oregon, there’s a clear reason — or thousands of reasons, rather.
That’s when large populations of mule deer migrate from higher elevations to winter habitats in lower elevations. For many of them, that means a journey across U.S. Highway 97 or state Highway 31, plus a return journey back to higher elevations in the spring.
Animal behavior is just half the reason Central Oregon is a wildlife crash hotspot.
“The other half of it is the increase of human population in Central Oregon and the increased traffic on Highway 97,” Walch said. “When you have a deer crossing the road and there are 10 cars passing it instead of two, you increase that chance of collision.”
Pandemic lockdown orders had an impact on wildlife. As the total number of vehicle miles traveled in Oregon decreased by 10.77% from 2019 to 2020, wildlife crashes across the state decreased by 2.37%, according to data from the Oregon Department of Transportation.
In Central Oregon, the tri-county area’s wildlife crash rates rose and fell with changing restrictions: Crashes dropped by a quarter in March and April of 2020 from the same months the year before when the state imposed a stay-at-home order. August, September and October saw more collisions in 2020 than the same months in 2019, but crashes again dropped by a quarter in November from the same month the year before as the state entered a “two-week freeze.”
Crashes have been on a downward trend in recent years. Collisions with wildlife in Central Oregon decreased by 17% between 2015 and 2019, and state transportation officials have been taking wildlife road crossings into consideration in the region.
Highway 97 south of Bend, for example, is home to two of the state’s three publicly owned wildlife underpasses, which allow deer and other animals to migrate under the highway instead of over it. The state’s first underpass was built near Lava Butte in 2012, and another followed near Gilchrist last year. Another is currently under construction as part of the highway expansion project between Bend and Sunriver.
The undercrossings are the result of partnerships in the region, according to Cidney Bowman, ODOT’s wildlife passage program leader. Because the state has little funding dedicated outright for wildlife passages, ODOT partners with other agencies and nonprofits to get projects funded with federal grants and private philanthropy.
In Central Oregon, collaboration between ODOT, ODFW, the U.S. Forest Service, the Oregon Hunters Association, the Oregon Wildlife Foundation and Protect Animal Migration garnered support for the regions three underpass projects and helped raise about half the funds for the Gilchrist crossing.
“There are a lot of people interested in different species or different areas they’d like to see migration reconnected,” Bowman said. “Certainly money was the big driver (in establishing partnerships), but now it’s just people that have a common interest in wildlife passage.”
Those kinds of partnerships are spreading to other wildlife crash-prone regions. One such working group with federal agencies, state officials and community members has formed in Ashland to bring wildlife passage to corridors there, according to Bowman.
Bowman says much about the future of Oregon’s wildlife passages is yet unknown, as ODOT doesn’t have a well defined strategy for wildlife crash reduction in the absence of dedicated funding. Still, $350 million of the federal infrastructure package signed by President Joe Biden this month will go to wildlife passage projects across the country.
Underpasses are just one form of improving wildlife connectivity — the ability of wildlife to move throughout habitat unobstructed, according to Rachel Wheat, the state’s wildlife connectivity coordinator in the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Connectivity matters not only to reduce vehicle crashes and the expense and injury that can come with them, but it’s also important for an individual species’ survival.
“On the wildlife side, connectivity is crucially important to the fulfillment of animals’ life cycles,” Wheat said. “Just about every wildlife species out there needs to be able to freely move throughout its environment to be able to access different habitats in different parts of its life.”
Wheat leads a statewide effort to map the habitats of 54 different species to identify common movement corridors and barriers.
That’ll allow state and local leaders to make safety improvements, such as additional wildlife underpasses or wildlife-sensing road signs, as well as look ahead by planning future housing, energy and commercial developments outside of wildlife corridors.
That’s going to become more important in the future. As Oregon’s climate changes in the face of rising global temperatures, wildlife populations will need to move to more suitable habitats when their current ranges get less hospitable.
“This is of course a long-distance movement, we’re not necessarily talking a daily movement or a seasonal movement from point A to point B, but the populations themselves are likely to shift over time to access areas where the climate is more suitable to meet that species’ needs,” Wheat said.
As that happens, species with more open paths will have better chances of survival than those blocked by roads, cities, rivers and other barriers.
“If we lack that connectivity and a species does need to move or shift over time and it can’t, then the likelihood of going extinct is much higher,” Wheat said.