Like most states in the American West, Oregon is renowned for wide open spaces, rugged terrain, and large populations of wildlife. Unfortunately, many animal species in the state have come under increasing threat in recent years because of habitat loss and fragmentation, much of it fueled by road development and higher vehicle traffic.
This trend has interrupted or cut off migration routes for species such as mule deer, elk, and pronghorn across the state, animals that need open pathways to move between their summer and winter habitats to find food and water and produce offspring. These species are also economically important because hunters and wildlife watchers alike spend their dollars in local communities, sustaining rural businesses and communities.
With wildlife-vehicle collisions increasing, especially during the animals’ spring and fall migrations, state wildlife managers and transportation planners are turning to innovative solutions such as bridges and underpasses built specifically for wildlife to provide them safe passage while reducing collisions with vehicles.
A new poll, conducted in February by the public opinion research firm GBAO Strategies and commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts—before the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. was widespread—found that 86% of Oregonians think protecting wildlife migration routes is important, and 95% of hunters and anglers share this sentiment. Ninety percent of those who live in central and eastern Oregon, where there is a high density of migrating wildlife, and 87% of rural Oregonians overall agree.
Oregonians favor creating safe passageways for migrating animals, which would support local jobs through the construction of the crossings and underpasses. Additionally, voters are enthusiastic about a variety of proposals designed to protect and manage wildlife migration corridors.
Oregon has a higher percentage per capita of wildlife collisions than Washington and California combined, resulting in hundreds of injuries, millions of dollars in damage, and the loss of tens of thousands of animals. A recently completed wildlife underpass at Lava Butte in central Oregon has already cut vehicle crashes with wildlife by 85%.
Backing for these types of solutions was high, with 86% of Oregonians favoring construction of more wildlife crossings on roads and highways, and 72% of those in rural parts of Oregon supporting the idea.
Public backing for wildlife-friendly bridges and underpasses recently helped bring about the unanimous passage of the Wildlife Corridor and Safe Road Crossing Act (HB 2834) in the Oregon Legislature. The act requires state transportation agencies and wildlife officials to collect data and develop a plan to help animals maintain their migration routes. Pew testified in support of the bill as it progressed toward the governor’s desk.
Although the law does not mandate funding for these plans, the poll found that 75% of voters from across the political and geographic spectrum support increased funding to build more wildlife crossings on roads and highways. Eighty-four percent favor the state Legislature allocating funding for wildlife crossings, and 87% want the Oregon Department of Transportation to prioritize construction of more wildlife crossings.
When it comes to habitat protection, 88% of Oregonians want the federal government to maintain open corridors for wildlife to migrate on public lands. This approval spans a variety of households and is particularly high—93%—among those with a member who works in agricultural or energy industries. Furthermore, 87% of Oregonians support the U.S. Forest Service safeguarding known wildlife migration corridors, and 82% back the use of special designations to protect migration corridors.
With new technology, scientists are continuing to learn more about where and how animals move across the landscape. With this emerging information and strong public support for habitat conservation and wildlife crossings, state and federal leaders are well positioned to implement policies to safeguard migration routes and other solutions to make roads safer for animals and people.
Matt Skroch is a manager and Laurel Williams is a senior associate for the U.S. Public Lands and Rivers Conservation Program.