Projects in Santa Cruz and Pacheco Pass are reconnecting habitats and reducing animal-vehicle collisions.
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, opened an underpass that will allow mountain lions and other wildlife to travel by safely between two large areas of habitat separated by Highway 17 and allow coastal wildlife to safely reach San Benito County.
A Caltrans District 5 press release said the Laurel Curve Wildlife Undercrossing will connect the nearly 460 acres of land on both sides of the freeway that have been preserved in a conservation easement by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. . He added that this part of the highway is built on a large natural drainage, which makes 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 Steven Keck, Acting Director of Caltrans. “This wildlife underpass will reconnect habitat on both sides of the highway while helping to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions, improving safety for the thousands of people who use the Highway 17 corridor each day.”
“This project shows how people and nature can thrive together,” said California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot. “This underpass connects animals to important habitat while protecting motorists from collisions. We are excited to expand and accelerate these win-win conservation actions.
High daily traffic combined with a concrete median and a lack of water crossings or bridges in the area contribute to a high frequency of wildlife-vehicle collisions along Highway 17, the statement said.
“Mountain lions, bobcats, bears, deer and countless other species will benefit from this and similar undercrossings,” said Charlton H. Bonham, director of the California Department of Fisheries and Conservation. wildlife.
The underpass will allow wildlife from the Santa Cruz side of the highway to reach Star Creek Ranch west of Highway 129 at Highway 101. A planned tunnel under 101 will allow animals to safely cross to Rocks Ranch, just south of the eucalyptus grove on the 101, which includes more than 2,670 acres of open space. According to the US Forest Service, the home range of an adult male mountain lion is typically over 100 square miles and that of a female 20 to 60 square miles.
Other wildlife found at Rocks Ranch include the endangered bobcats, golden eagles, and California red-legged frogs. There are also signs of Native American cultural artifacts, such as rock mortars.
According to the Santa Cruz Land Trust, when they worked with Project Puma to catch and track mountain lions near Laurel Curve, they paid close attention to where these predators were heading. The answer was Rocks Ranch. There is no start date or estimated cost for the Highway 101 Wildlife Corridor.
The pre-construction phases of the Highway 17 underpass were supported by funds from Caltrans’s State Highway Operations and Protection Program (SHOPP). 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 obtained $10 million in value from purchased property rights.
The contractor for the $5.4 million Highway 17 underpass is Graniterock and construction began in February. Completion is scheduled for the end of this year. Rachel Reed, Graniterock’s biological resources project manager, told BenitoLink that it will be the first under or over to be completed and used in California.
“We are proud to play a key role in bringing this project to life for the Santa Cruz County community,” Reed said. “As a company, we are strong supporters of new infrastructure that provides environmental benefits and improves motorist safety in this busy corridor.”
There are also plans for a possible second wildlife crossing that will benefit wildlife in San Benito County. On April 19, the Highspeed Rail Authority announced a $3 million grant from the California Wildlife Conservation Board to study a possible wildlife crossing of the Pacheco Pass 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 section of the project,” said Northern California Regional Manager 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 wildlife relocation.
“Without this team effort sitting at the table to develop a shared solution, I don’t think this outcome would have happened,” said Edmund Sullivan, CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Agency.
The grant will support up to four years of planning and environmental review for the proposed crossing. This includes completing a habitat modeling analysis, completing a feasibility study, preparing a project inception report under Caltrans oversight, and advancing the project design to 65 % complete.
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