EVARO - Yogi Bear sits on a mountain up here and wonders: How the heck do I get across THAT?

Patience, Yogi, patience.

Rings of keystone rising 26 feet in the air are just now popping up above road construction on U.S. Highway 93 north of the Grey Wolf Peak Casino.

All 33 rings should be in place sometime Thursday, forming a tunnel nearly 200 feet long for future traffic to drive through - and bears, moose, elk and other wild animals to walk over.

It's the long-awaited, $1.88 million Evaro Hill wildlife overcrossing, and Dale Becker almost needed a pinch the other day to believe it's actually happening.

"We started talking about this particular site and this particular project back in about 1992," said Becker, wildlife program manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. "It was kind of exciting to actually go down yesterday and see the thing start to take form."

Vegetation and fill - 17,000 cubic yards of it - will create a natural-looking passageway for Yogi and his ilk. Fences 8 feet high will encourage them to use it.

"There's nothing like this in Montana," said Pat Basting, wildlife biologist for the Montana Department of Transportation. "In fact, of this type and style of overpass, it'll probably be the first one in the United States."

On Wednesday, traffic crawled through the latest stage of a construction project that's revamping Highway 93 from Evaro to Polson. The massive multiyear project is dubbed The Peoples Way, but it's a boon for wild critters as well.

Forty-three crossings for wildlife are or will soon be installed on the 56-mile stretch, and by all indications they're working well. All but one run under the highway in the form of culverts or bridges.

"In this area we chose to go with the overcrossing structure because we had fairly intact tribal lands on either side of the highway route, and it was an area in the past where we had seen quite a bit of wildlife mortality," Becker said.

Preliminary documentation has shown that animals of all sizes - from elk and black bears to squirrels and snowshoe hare - use the underpasses, most of which are placed in riparian areas where culverts were needed anyway.

The overpass should accommodate larger beasts, perhaps even grizzlies. According to design discussions published in 2000, it's at the "best possible location for linking grizzly bear populations to the east with the Bitterroot grizzly bear recovery zone to the west."

Planners of the overpass took a couple of trips to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, to study two wildlife overpasses there. They are the most recognized in the world, and worth imitating.

"If you've seen those, you're looking at a real similar design and similar concept," Becker said.

On Wednesday afternoon, trucks rolled up in succession to the south end of the tunnel, each carrying half an arch newly cast from a plant in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and weighing more than 18 tons. Two giant yellow cranes lifted the arches off their beds and swung them into place. Workers at both the mouth of the tunnel and on top secured them.

After all 33 of the 6-foot wide "rings" are installed, a waterproof membrane will cover the roof, and some three feet of earth will cover that.

The 54-foot span is wide enough to accommodate both the two-lane highway and a 6-foot bikeway. Department of Transportation officials say it should be ready when the rest of the highway project is completed in October or November.

Animals coming from either the east or west side of Highway 93 will be funneled by fences to a wide incline that narrows to 197 feet wide at the top. From the air the two approaches and the overpass itself will have an hourglass shape, Basting said.

It's a concept that has been used in Europe since perhaps the 1950s, according to Becker, but "they've been slow to get over here, I guess."

All 43 wildlife crossings on The Peoples Way - so named because of the wide array of folks who collaborated to fix this deadly stretch of Highway 93 - were part of a plan finalized in 2000, when the tribes, Montana's Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration signed a memorandum of agreement.

"They (the crossings) have been alive and well during the whole process," said Becker.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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