YAKIMA — There was no way the agencies monitoring wildlife along the I-90 corridor could supply the manpower needed for a yearlong survey of animals along the highway, so they turned to you.
Well, you and anyone else who drives the stretch of I-90 connecting Eastern and Western Washington. That was the genesis of the I-90 Wildlife Watch, a multi-agency effort that enlisted public volunteers — commuters — to document wildlife sightings.
“That information is really hard to collect,” said Paula MacKay, an Ellensburg-based research associate with Western Transportation Institute. “You have to be in the right place at the right time.”
Tapping the occupants of the 28,000 vehicles that pass over the Snoqualmie Pass corridor each day for help greatly increases the odds that someone will be in that right place, she said. The Western Transportation Institute, a department of Montana State University, launched the project in November 2010 with the nonprofit I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition. The goal is to help the state Department of Transportation better understand the area’s wildlife as it plans construction of 24 wildlife crossings over and under I-90 between Easton and Hyak as part of a highway expansion over the next several years. The crossing are intended to both reduce the number of animals killed by vehicles and maintain gene diversity of species that might otherwise stay on one side of the highway.
It works by asking drivers to report wildlife sightings at the project’s website, www.i90wildlifewatch.org.
“It allows us to get information from the public that we’re not able to see with our own monitoring programs,” said Yakima-based DOT spokeswoman Meagan McFadden.
In February, the Western Transportation Institute published the results of its first year of monitoring: 475 animals were reported, including 52 dead ones. Unsurprisingly, the animals spotted most frequently were deer and elk. But there were also bobcats, black bears, foxes, mink, otters, cougars, turkeys and other species. It’s not as though any of that is groundbreaking from the perspective of those who study the local wildlife, but most people don’t really have any idea of just how much animal diversity can be found close to the road.
“There weren’t surprises in the species that were reported,” said Jen Watkins, outreach director for the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition. “But for the public, seeing the breadth of species was surprising.”
The interstate crosses the ecologically vital North Cascades ecosystem, something most motorists don’t spend much time considering when they’re flying past at 70 mph, MacKay said.
“When we’re traveling in our cars we really feel like we’re in a bubble,” she said. “This program has allowed people to really realize … they’re traveling through a wild place when we’re driving in that I-90 corridor.”
Now in its second year, the public-monitoring project has begun to produce data that can help the DOT design and place its wildlife crossings. For instance, Watkins said, mountain goats tend to shy away from roadways. So if mountain goats are spotted at certain places along the highway, crossings at those places could be tailored to better resemble natural geography in a way that would encourage mountain-goat use.
Facilitating that kind of travel for wide-ranging species that migrate seasonally or in search of food and mates is key to the health of the ecosystem, MacKay said.
“At the most extreme end of the spectrum, what you run into when you have a barrier within a wildlife habitat is separation of populations,” she said. “And those populations become vulnerable to different problems.”
The hope is that once the highway crossings are built, more animals will cross safely out of the way of traffic. Future years’ data, then, will hopefully show a pattern of more live animal sightings and fewer dead animal sightings, MacKay said. And the information reported now by the public will help the agencies better monitor that.
“They’re helping us create a before-and-after picture in terms of the wildlife crossing structures that will be constructed,” she said.