As elk co-managers, tribes plan highway overpass project

Tribes who want to see the North Cascades elk population coexist safely with human communities in the Skagit Valley are developing a wildlife overpass project to help the animals cross Highway 20 near Red Cabin Creek. 

The overpass could reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions on the busy two-lane highway while improving habitat connectivity for elk and other species. 

“As land stewards, this is a continuation of what we’ve always done,” said Scott Schuyler of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, which historically had a village near the project site. 

The Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians recently secured $8.5 million in funding to design and build the wildlife overpass. Other tribal co-managers of the regional elk herd support the project and will be involved with the planning and implementation process.

“The Stillaguamish Tribe got the grant, but we want it to be a collaborative effort for all of the co-manager tribes,” said Jennifer Sevigny, the Stillaguamish Tribe’s wildlife program manager. “It’s a good opportunity for the tribes to take initiative to protect treaty rights and public safety.” 

Though rural, Highway 20 is routinely busy with passenger vehicles and delivery trucks, as shown on a Monday afternoon in January. Adjacent fields are a draw for foraging elk.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and several other entities are project partners or providing support for the effort, including the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Conservation Northwest, Skagit Land Trust, and those who own the land where it will be built. 

“This is symbolic. It’s nice that we can work together to make it happen,” said landowner Ger van den Engh. 

Elk frequently visit his hay fields near Red Cabin Creek, eating their fill of the grasses before again retreating into nearby woods. Sometimes the animals cross the highway to access areas of refuge, becoming dangerous obstacles for drivers on the road. 

Shane Spahr, a project engineer at WSDOT, said the particular section of highway near Red Cabin Creek has seen one of the highest collision rates with the 400- to 800-pound animals according to agency data. 

The overpass could reduce collisions up to 90%, according to project documents. 

“This is a big thing, to get them from one side to the other safely,” said Frank Bob of Lummi Nation. 

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, who helped get federal funding earmarked for the project, visited the future wildlife crossing site in January and discussed the success of crossings built elsewhere, like on Interstate 90 through the Cascades. 

Wildlife cameras have documented a variety of critters using that land bridge over a six-lane freeway. They’ve ranged from cougars and coyotes to skunks and squirrels, showing that where habitat is connected, animals will cross. 

“You can put a camera on one of these things and people anywhere in the world can see,” Larsen said. 

Similar to how it is now recognized that salmon need adequate stream crossings beneath roads, there’s a growing awareness that other wildlife need crossings over or under these networks of pavement. 

At the Red Cabin Creek Wildlife Overpass site, project partners will monitor wildlife presence and compare collision data before and after construction. 

“This project is something we hope to see more of in the future. It’s going to build resiliency for all wildlife,” said Mike Sevigny, wildlife manager for the Tulalip Tribes. 

The Stillaguamish Tribe plans to design, permit and build the overpass by the end of 2027. 

The grant funding is from a pilot program the Federal Highway Administration developed for wildlife crossings as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021.

Above: Eric White, chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, discusses a wildlife crossing to be built over Highway 20 in the Skagit Valley. Project partners met with U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen (third from right) on site in January. Photos and story: Kimberly Cauvel.