SEATTLE, June 8 (Reuters) - Bears, cougars, elk and even lizards will be getting a bridge of their own in Washington state so some of the region's largest and most endangered wildlife can safely cross a major highway.
The Washington State Department of Transportation will break ground on Tuesday on the crossing, which will span Interstate 90, a major thoroughfare that links the Seattle area with eastern Washington as it meanders across the United States, agency officials said.
The 150-foot-long (45-metre) wildlife bridge about 50 miles (80 km) southeast of Seattle near the Snoqualmie Pass will be the largest of its kind in the state, helping to cut down on collisions between vehicles and animals along a "critical connective link" in the north-south movement of wildlife living in the Cascade Range, according to the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition.
Crews recently built three wildlife tunnels under the highway that are being used by smaller species, ranging from coyotes to ducks and otters, said Jen Watkins, a project coordinator with the coalition.
"We're seeing success even before the work is complete," she said, referring to animal crossings. "And it's not rare, it's frequent."
The new bridge, which will take about four years to complete, will be one of two scheduled to traverse the interstate highway, which is undergoing a $1 billion revamp along a 15-mile (24-km) stretch to improve safety and widen the corridor to six lanes from four. About 27,000 cars and trucks use that stretch of interstate each day, according to transportation statistics.
The wildlife bridge will accommodate large animals, like black bears and elk, as well as smaller species like salamanders, as they shuttle across the highway looking for food and mates, authorities said.
Watkins said she expected the crossing to become especially popular as adult animals begin training their young to use it.
Scientists also hope the spans will help the recovery of endangered wildlife populations, like wolverines and the gray wolf.
The bridge will be the second of its kind in Washington, with a smaller crossing already built in Seattle. Wildlife bridges also exist in Colorado and Montana, as well as European countries including Germany and the Netherlands.
Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Peter Cooney