Safe Passage 97 initially emerged in 2013; a brainchild of those partnering with the Working for Wildlife Initiative. This is a coalition of state, federal, and tribal organizations seeking to maintain the ecological diversity of the regional landscape. To date, the Working for Wildlife Initiative has invested in habitat restoration on both public and private lands, secured key land parcels under conservation easements, documented the presence of lynx within the Kettle Range (as well as initiated recovery planning for this threatened wild cat), and reintroduced the sharp-tailed grouse to the local ecosystem.
For scientists and wildlife safety experts in the region, it quickly became clear that a wildlife safety transportation project was needed somewhere in the 13 miles of Highway 97 between the towns of Riverside and Tonasket in Okanogan County. This stretch of highway sees more than 350 deer-vehicle collisions every year and is a critical location for migratory herds—particularly Mule deer—as they travel between the North Cascades to the west and the Okanogan Highlands and Kettle Range to the east. Many of these migrant herds winter in the Okanogan Valley, while resident deer are at risk year-round.
Wildlife Connectivity—What Is a Wildlife Corridor?
A black bear and her cubs stand where blacktop meets dirt and shale. Every few minutes, something large and fast wizzes by, startling the cubs into retreat. The mother growls, herding them back together and shuffling toward the cement, gently showing her young how to climb over the short metal barrier. They’re on the move, but progress is slow.
Five hundred feet away, a camper van follows the curve of the highway, completely unaware of the animals crossing ahead. Even with high beams on, visibility is limited to a few hundred feet; not enough space to successfully stop the vehicle once the bears have been spotted.
In Washington state, more than 1,500 vehicle collisions with animals are reported every year. With a wildlife passage, this number can drop dramatically. By constructing large tunnels below the highway (or, in some instances, large bridges that arch above the road), animals can cross safely without ever having to cross paths with a human or vehicle.
Not just for large mammals, wildlife corridors are frequently used by a wide array of migrating and local animals, such as birds, rabbits, squirrels, foxes, and bats—even the monarch butterfly. And these constructions aren’t limited to just Washington state, either. Wildlife corridors are popping up across the country, including massive undertakings in Los Angeles by the National Wildlife Federation and Michigan’s upper peninsula by The Nature Conservancy.
In addition to the increased safety for wildlife and drivers, overcoming barriers like highways is a huge win for habitat connectivity. Animals make daily movements to find food, water, mates, and make seasonal migrations. Some animals may experience generational shifts, claiming new territory to call home. Habitat connectivity becomes even more important as the climate changes and animals move to adapt to a changing environment.
The Challenge of Funding
Funding was the largest obstacle to Safe Passage 97. With the initial plan to advocate for state funding and work with the Washington Department of Transportation to identify and further solutions for safer passage on this highway, a stalemate was soon reached, and Conservation Northwest and partners had to look to private supporters—both businesses and individuals. Thankfully, this was achieved, and the wilderness corridor was completed.
Today, motion detectors and cameras capture animals as they pass through the corridor with confidence; entire herds of mule deer curiously sticking their heads toward the camera lens as they walk, safely to the other side of the highway.
Restoring habitat connectivity has been a cornerstone of Conservation Northwest’s work since the organization’s founding in 1989. By focusing on connecting big landscapes, CNW has successfully protected vital corridors and reconnected habitats between Washington’s North and South Cascades, from the British Columbia Coast and Chilcotin Ranges to the North Cascades, as well as from the Cascades to the Kettle River Range and Greater Rocky Mountains.
Conservation Northwest’s most recent program, “Cascades to Olympics,” is taking place on Highway 97 and Interstate 5. CNW hopes to develop long-term legislative support in order to allow species to move at will. The goal is to continue these projects, adding 11 more miles of possible land to the roster for corridor implementation. State funding for this was approved earlier this year and the research has just begun to identify the best location for the next corridor.
CNW has also played a huge role in the I-90 Wildlife Corridor Campaign, reconnecting Washington’s north and south Cascades through the construction of underpass and overpass wildlife corridors. These efforts protect and restore habitats as well as establish safe wildlife passages under and over I-90. Check out this project video to learn more!