$2.8 million wildlife undercrossing project begins north of Truckee | SierraSun.com

$2.8 million wildlife undercrossing project begins north of Truckee

Members of the Highway 89 Stewardship Team put shovels in the ground during the Sierra 89 Wildlife Undercrossing groundbreaking Monday at Sagehen Summit along Highway 89.

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The Highway 89 Stewardship Team includes: California Department of Transportation; California Department of Fish and Wildlife; USDA Forest Service (Tahoe National Forest and Pacific Southwest Research Station); University of California, Davis; University of California Cooperative Extension; University of California Berkeley-Sagehen Creek Field Station; Sierra County; Sierra County Fish and Wildlife Commission; California Deer Association; and Trout Unlimited.

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Every year, roughly 200 people are killed in as many as 2 million wildlife-vehicle collisions at a cost of more than $8 billion, according to the Western Transportation Institute.

The Highway 89 Stewardship Team is paving the way toward reducing such startling figures in the greater Truckee region.

On Monday, the team officially broke ground on the Sierra 89 Wildlife Undercrossings project in a ceremony held at Sagehen Summit along Highway 89 north of Truckee, near Sagehen Creek Field Station.

“This project is important for the connectivity of wildlife and to reduce vehicle-wildlife collisions around this section of Highway 89,” said Tim Crosby, resident engineer for Caltrans, a partner on the project.

The $2.8 million project — funded by the State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP) — will consist of the construction of two tunnels, built as a pair, on the busy 25-mile stretch of Highway 89 between Truckee and Sierraville, providing a path for wildlife to cross this section of the roadway.

Additionally, 1.3 miles of wildlife fencing will be installed along both sides of the 89 to guide animals to the safe passage under the highway.

A FOCUS ON SAFETY

Highway 89 provides the main north-south route through the Tahoe National Forest, which covers over 1,300 square miles of woodland, valleys and lakes — prime habitat for many different kinds of wildlife.

“We’ve really placed an emphasis on making our road systems a lot more safer, and at the same time a lot more conducive toward these migratory corridors,” said Quentin Youngblood, Sierraville district ranger of the Tahoe National Forest, a project partner. “Structuring these wildlife underpasses in a pattern to where you’re getting the biggest bang for the buck.”

The data that pinpointed where the wildlife undercrossings should be placed, Youngblood said, is the result of 27 years worth of data taken by Caltrans.

In fact, recent Caltrans studies indicate more than 1,000 mule deer have been killed along Highway 89 in the Loyalton-Truckee area over the past 27 years, according to previous reports.

“We’ve been involved heavily with the deer portion of it,” said Sara Holm, environmental scientist with California Department of Fish and Wildlife, “collaring the deer, finding out where they move so we can put these underpasses in the best place.

“It’s really making sure these deer can use the habitat like they always have. We’ve done a lot of things construction-wise with developments and roads that have cut of their normal migration paths — taken away their habitat — and this is kind of a way of connecting that; making sure that they still have access to the places they need to go for food and breeding and all of those things.”

UNDERCROSSINGS EFFECTIVENESS

Sandra Jacobson, a wildlife biologist with Pacific Southwest Research Station, said global studies have shown that well-placed wildlife crossings coupled with fencing are “somewhere between 75 and 100 percent effective.”

The agency has also found no evidence of predators waiting at the end of the tunnels for animals to pass through, Jacobson said.

In other words, “this is a good use of taxpayer money,” Jacobson continued. “We have found when we have done cost-benefit analysis that, yes, it is a positive benefit to the taxpayer. The cost of deer-vehicle collisions alone — not counting the other species — is enough to where we can actually break even in a relatively few number of years.”

Caltrans environmental staff, in conjunction with the Sierra 89 Stewardship Team partners, will monitor and research the undercrossings for three years to study their effectiveness.

The project is the second in a series of planned mitigation and research efforts by the Highway 89 Stewardship Team. The team’s first wildlife undercrossing, on Highway 89 at Kyburz Flat, was completed in 2009.

Since, local highway patrol reports reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions in the area of the undercrossing, according to Caltrans.