Environment / Nature

Wildlife crossings at highways bringing safer travels for all in San Benito County

Projects in Santa Cruz and Pacheco Pass reconnect habitats and reduce animal-vehicle collisions.
An adult male mountain lion can have a home range greater than 100 square miles. Photo courtesy of Mountain Lion Foundation.
An adult male mountain lion can have a home range greater than 100 square miles. Photo courtesy of Mountain Lion Foundation.
California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot. Photo courtesy of Caltrans District 5.
California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot. Photo courtesy of Caltrans District 5.

On April 29, Caltrans and the California Natural Resources Agency, along with local partners including the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County and the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission, broke ground on an undercrossing that will enable mountain lions and other wildlife to travel safely between two large areas of habitat separated by Hwy 17 and allow for coastal wildlife to safely reach San Benito County. 

A news release from Caltrans District 5 said the Laurel Curve Wildlife Undercrossing will connect the nearly 460 acres of land on both sides of the highway that has been preserved in a conservation easement by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. It added that this part of the highway is built over a large natural drainage, making it an ideal place for such a crossing.

“This unique and innovative project is the result of community collaboration and aligns with Caltrans’ commitment to safety and respect for the environment,” said Caltrans Acting Director Steven Keck. “This wildlife undercrossing will reconnect habitat on both sides of the highway while helping reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions, improving safety for the thousands of people who travel the Highway 17 corridor every day.” 

“This project shows how people and nature can thrive together,” said California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot. “This undercrossing allows animals to connect to important habitat while protecting motorists from collisions. We’re excited to expand and accelerate these win-win conservation actions.”  

High daily traffic combined with a concrete median and a lack of water passages or bridges in the area contribute to a high frequency of animal-vehicle collisions along Hwy 17, the release said. 

“Mountain lions, bobcats, bear, deer and countless other species will benefit from this undercrossing and others like it,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton H. Bonham. 

The underpass will allow wildlife from the Santa Cruz side of the highway to reach Star Creek Ranch west of Hwy 129 at Hwy 101. A planned tunnel under 101 will allow animals to safely cross to Rocks Ranch, just south of the eucalyptus grove on 101, which includes more than 2,670 acres of open space. According to the U.S. Forest Service, an adult male mountain lion’s home range is typically more than 100 square miles and a female’s generally 20 to 60 square miles.

Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Land Trust.

Other wildlife found at Rocks Ranch include bobcats, golden eagles and endangered California red-legged frogs. There are also signs of Native American cultural artifacts, such as bedrock mortars.

According to The Santa Cruz Land Trust, when they worked with the Puma Project to collar and track mountain lions near Laurel Curve, they paid special attention to where these apex predators were headed. The answer was Rocks Ranch. There is no start date or estimated cost for the Hwy 101 wildlife corridor. 

Pre-construction phases of the Hwy 17 undercrossing were funded with Caltrans’ State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP) funds. The Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission will use voter-approved Measure D funds to leverage additional SHOPP and Land Trust dollars for construction. The Land Trust also secured $10 million in purchased property rights value.

The contractor for the $5.4 million Hwy 17 undercrossing is Graniterock and construction began in February. Completion is scheduled for the end of this year. Rachel Reed, Graniterock biological resources project manager, told BenitoLink this will be the first under- or overcrossing to be completed and in use in California.

“We’re proud to play a key role in making this project a reality for the community of Santa Cruz County,” Reed said. “As a company, we are strong supporters of new infrastructure that delivers environmental benefits as well as improves safety for motorists through this heavily traveled corridor.”

There are also plans for a possible second wildlife crossing that will benefit San Benito County wildlife. On April 19, the Highspeed Rail Authority announced a $3 million grant awarded by the California Wildlife Conservation Board to study a possible Pacheco Pass wildlife overcrossing near the planned high-speed rail line. 

The rail authority said it partnered for the project with the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Agency, Caltrans, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and Pathways for Wildlife. 

“This grant aligns with the authority’s planning efforts to increase wildlife connectivity in the San Jose to Merced project section,” said Northern California Regional Director Boris Lipkin. 

According to the authority, there are several sensitive wildlife areas along the planned rail corridor, including Pacheco Pass, and the authority has incorporated project elements to allow for wildlife movement.

“Without this being a team effort sitting at the table to develop a shared solution, I don’t think this outcome would have come to pass,” said Santa Clara Valley Habitat Agency Executive Officer Edmund Sullivan.

The grant will support up to four years of  planning and environmental review for the proposed overcrossing. This includes conducting a habitat modeling analysis, completing a feasibility study, preparing a project initiation report under Caltrans’ oversight and advancing the project design to 65% completion.

 

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Carmel de Bertaut

Carmel has a BA in Natural Sciences/Biodiversity Stewardship from San Jose State University and an AA in Communications Studies from West Valley Community College. She reports on science and the environment, arts and human interest pieces. Carmel has worked in the ecological and communication fields and is an avid creative writer and hiker. She has been reporting for BenitoLink since May, 2018 and covers Science and the Environment and Arts and Culture.