Local Elk Management Group works to repair I-90 wildlife fence, prevent deadly accidents

[Article by Melissa Grant, contributing writer, wildlife enthusiast and owner of Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs]

Did you know there is fencing along I-90 to protect you and large animals from dangerous car collisions?

I recently went to hear Kelly McCallister, Program Manager for Fish and Wildlife, and Glen Kalisz, the new Habitat Connectivity Biologist for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Fish and Wildlife Program, speak to the elk management group. They were updating the group about the new wildlife bridge and future projects for protecting people and wildlife along our roadways.

After the meeting I asked Glen if he could provide any background of the fence project and he so kindly directed me to a document – a thesis by David Kangiser – that gave me some history of the fence and its accompanying wildlife crossings.

In the mid 1960’s WSDOT was looking for ways to fix the congestion on US 10, the highway that ran through the middle of North Bend. At the time the highway was renumbered, creating I-90. In 1964 the Bureau of Public Lands authorized an expansion of I-90 on the west side of Snoqualmie Pass and different routes were discussed for the massive project. One option was to use the existing route and have the highway run straight through town! This was a concern to North Bend residents and an alternative route was chosen at the base of Rattlesnake Mountain.

The new route had massive environmental impacts on salmon runs and terrestrial and avian migrations, and the newly adopted National Environmental Policy of 1969 meant the Department of Highways had to send an impact statement to the other departments. Most signed off on the project, but the Departments of Game, Ecology and Fisheries had concerns. After some tough negotiations, they settled on the wildlife crossings we have today.

Fencing was installed between exits 27 and 31 in 1976 to compliment the two wildlife crossing structures built during freeway construction. Unfortunately, the fencing has fallen into disrepair in recent years.  Since the mid 70’s, WSDOT has tracked the number of deer and elk carcasses removed from the road by their maintenance staff and estimate a minimum 5,000 deer and 200 elk are killed on Washington State highways every year.

Thanks to our own Upper Snoqualmie Valley Elk Management Group’s (USVEMG) efforts, the number of elk/deer vs. vehicle accidents in recent years have been greatly reduced. According to Elk Management Research Committee Chair Harold Erland, in 2009 39 elk were killed on Snoqualmie Valley highways, most of those between exits 27 and 31. In 2011 the elk management group started work on the fencing and by 2012 the fatality number dropped to virtually zero – although elk did still get hit in other areas.

Unfortunately, those numbers have started to rise again recently, with six elk being killed between exit 34 and Preston since the February snow storms – three deaths were in the area where USVEMG maintains the fence. The reasons are varied – trees fall during bad weather, the homeless breach the fences to access places they wish to camp, hunters cut the fences to avoid carrying their harvests the long way around back to their cars and some homeowners cut the fence for reasons only they know.

The group has put in thousands of volunteer hours to repair the aging 8-foot-tall fence, but they need help. There is a chance a WSDOT project will improve parts of the existing fence and extend it to exit 38. When that happens, the freeways will be much safer, but until that time the risk of more collisions is real. To volunteer for fence work or their spring census, that begins in April, please email officers@snoqualmievalleyelk.org

So how else can you help? Well if you join the Upper Valley Elk Management Group, you’ll get notices of meetings and get to go hear about projects like the one last Monday when Glen Kalisz updated us on the new wildlife bridge and future plans for protecting wildlife and people along our roadways. It was fascinating! You’ll know the dates of the upcoming speakers coming up who will present on wolverines and wolves, too. Oh my! Membership sign up is on their website and is only $10 for a year.

You can also attend the Elk Management’s 10-year anniversary BBQ and try an elk burger!  It’s a fun, kid friendly event with games, storytelling and a slide show. Your yearlong membership is included in the entrance fee. It’s May 4th and more details will be announced soon. 

If none of that appeals to you, there is a donate button on their website. According to the website you can donate for all sorts of reasons – naming a collared elk, warning signs in areas with elk or habitat improvement – but really isn’t the biggest reason to help to ensure the safety of everyone who drives that stretch of I-90 on a daily basis?

Thank you, Elk Management Group. We really appreciate what you do for the Valley, its residents and its animals.

Upper Snoqualmie Valley Elk Management Group volunteers repair damaged freeway fencing.
Wildlife fence repairs along I-90 in the Snoqualmie Valley

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