Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify where the wildlife vehicle collisions occur along U.S. 550.
From California to West Virginia, efforts are underway to conserve and restore fish and wildlife migration corridors and habitat. Many of these projects stand to benefit significantly from funding provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would provide the nation’s first dedicated resources—$350 million over five years—for state, local, and tribal governments to construct wildlife crossings over and under roads. Such crossings are proven to reduce human and animal fatalities and injuries caused by the more than 1 million wildlife-vehicle collisions that occur each year.
In addition, $1 billion would go toward repairing or removing culverts and $400 million toward removal of barriers such as dams in order to improve fish survival.
Here are seven projects that could benefit significantly from the bill:
Removing California’s Matilija Dam
Constructed in 1947, the Matilija Dam on the Ventura River no longer serves its original purpose: water storage and flood control. The reservoir is almost filled with sediment, blocks fish migration, and contributes to beach erosion.
Since 1999, the Ventura County Public Works Agency has engaged in a multi-stakeholder effort to remove the dam from Matilija Creek. The Matilija Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project is a watershed-scale endeavor with multiple components that will enhance the Ventura River ecosystem, benefit native fish and wildlife, and improve community resilience and recreation.
Helping wildlife cross a Colorado highway
U.S. 550 passes through prime habitat for some of Colorado’s large, though declining, herds of elk and mule deer. Approximately 50% of crashes reported to law enforcement along this stretch of the roadway during the past 10 years were wildlife-related, and the project is one of the top priorities identified in the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Western Slope Wildlife Prioritization Study. Construction of a wildlife underpass and directional fencing, slated to begin in 2022, will help reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and reconnect habitat.
An Oregon salmon ‘superhighway’
In Oregon, as in much of the Western U.S., dams and other barriers prevent salmon and steelhead from reaching spawning areas. The Salmon SuperHwy, a partnership that includes the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, local businesses, Tillamook County, Trout Unlimited, and other conservation organizations, is working to alleviate the problem by removing barriers and reconnecting more than 180 miles of fish habitat in the state, an effort that will also reduce chronic flooding, improve recreation opportunities, and boost the economy. This initiative presents one of the best opportunities for salmon and steelhead recovery in the continental U.S.
Making a western Wyoming highway safer
A stretch of U.S. Route 26/287 between Riverton and Dubois, Wyoming—one of the main routes to Grand Teton National Park—has the highest number of wildlife-vehicle collisions relative to traffic volume in the state, according to the Wyoming Wildlife and Roadways Initiative. The Wyoming Department of Transportation hopes to construct two overpasses and eight concrete box culvert underpasses and modify five existing highway bridges to ease crossing of wildlife.
Removing West Virginia’s Albright Dam
The Albright Dam was built on the Cheat River in West Virginia in 1952 and decommissioned in 2012 but still hurts water quality and the ecosystem by letting water stagnate and blocking passage of aquatic species. Removing the dam would reconnect over 1,000 miles of river habitat, and passage of the infrastructure bill would help by potentially funding this project.
A crossing solution for Oregon’s Highway 20
On a stretch of U.S. Highway 20 in eastern Oregon, vehicle-wildlife collisions cost an estimated $2 million-plus a year. The Burns Paiute Tribe has been advocating for wildlife crossings there to help improve driver safety and reverse the decline in Malheur County’s mule deer population, which is important to the tribe for food and traditional uses. A healthy mule deer population is also key to the state’s outdoor recreation industry, which supports 224,000 jobs, generates $15.6 billion in consumer spending, and contributes $13 billion to Oregon’s gross domestic product annually. A 2020 survey found that 86% of Oregonians think protecting wildlife migration routes is important, and 95% of hunters and anglers share this sentiment.
Repairing failing culverts to benefit salmon and other wildlife
In Washington state, culverts are major impediments to salmon and steelhead moving between rivers and marine waters. These barriers and diversions for irrigation, transportation, and other purposes block access to prime cold-water habitat that the species need to spawn. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that there are at least 18,000 to 20,000 of these barriers across the state, including many located on rivers that run through federal lands. In July 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision requiring the state to repair these failing culverts to promote salmon recovery and protect tribal treaty rights to fish for the species.
The bipartisan work that went into these wildlife and river conservation provisions will help local economies that depend on healthy ecosystems, reduce collisions, and help rehabilitate wildlife habitat. The Pew Charitable Trusts looks forward to working with stakeholders and tribes on implementation of these programs.
Marcia Argust directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.