SANTA CRUZ — Crews began construction six months ago on a massive underpass project under Highway 17 intended to provide safe passage for human and wildlife commuters.
The project is located along the so-called Laurel Curve, which is a particularly accident-prone bend on the notoriously dangerous freeway. Collisions at this curve frequently involve Santa Cruz wildlife, including cougars, deer, foxes, and badgers, among others.
The 90-foot underpass will extend beneath the four northern and southern traffic lanes, providing space for animals to move through the rich mountain habitat while avoiding treacherous and often deadly crossings.
“We recognized this was a choke point for wildlife trying to cross 17,” said Laura Dannehl-Schickman, director of development and communications for the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, who launched the effort. “Especially for the Santa Cruz cougars who are facing a genetic catastrophe, basically.”
Dannehl-Schickman said the project — construction on which began in February — spanned 12 years and was designed, in part, through early collaboration with biologists from Caltrans and research organizations Pathways for Wildlife and the Santa Cruz Puma Project.
The data collected suggests that Santa Cruz pumas suffer from a lack of genetic diversity, which often leads to devastating physiological effects and possibly outright extinction.
“These big highways, they can cut people off on one side of the road from the other,” Chris Wilmers, founder of the Santa Cruz Puma Project, told the Sentinel. “By doing that they create islands of habitat where individuals on one island no longer breed with individuals on the other and one of the long term consequences of that is you get inbreeding and eventually l extinction of these animals.”
In addition to genetic siphoning, the physical threat posed by the more than 65,000 vehicles that use the highway daily is also a significant problem for cougars and other wildlife in Santa Cruz. According to a 2011 study by the land trust, 21 deer, two mountain lions, a bobcat, a coyote, two raccoons and a skunk were killed in collisions with vehicles on Laurel Curve alone from 2008 to 2011.
The undercrossing project could help reduce both problems.
Animals are often found near Laurel Curve primarily because the surrounding land has not been developed due to its natural landscape. “They know to go in that direction just because there’s nobody there,” Dannehl-Schickman said.
After recognizing this, the Santa Cruz County Land Trust purchased land nearby and successfully developed two approximately 400-acre conservation easements on either side of the highway. An 800-acre reserve, uninhabited by humans, was finally within reach and other local organizations jumped at the chance to contribute to the effort.
“Transportation has such a significant effect on other areas beyond just moving people,” said Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission Executive Director Guy Preston. “To be truly true to all of the values of the community, our transportation program must truly consider the wide range of possibilities for achieving community goals and values.”
The transportation commission has developed a comprehensive fundraising plan for the project, which totals approximately $12.5 million. Caltrans contributed $5 million to fund the project, the Land Trust raised $3 million, and the transportation commission added $5 million to its 2016 Measure D funds.
“Everyone was dreaming in the same direction,” said Kevin Drabinski, public information manager for Caltrans. “Everyone had a vision for what it could look like and poured all of their individual resources into something stronger collectively.”
Drabinski said Caltrans crews are building a series of vertical road supports for what will eventually become a bridge. Road work is planned until early fall, then excavation work to remove the earth will begin and the underpass itself will begin to take shape. The project is on track for completion by the end of the year.
But Santa Cruz County isn’t alone in its wildlife crossing efforts — organizations across the state seem to be “dreaming in the same direction.” In April, a 200-foot-long wildlife overpass crossed Highway 101 in Agoura Hills in Los Angeles County.
Dannehl-Schickman also told the Sentinel that the success of the Laurel Curve project has paved the way for a second crossing the Land Trust is pursuing along Highway 101 in San Benito County, which would open up even more acreage for the land. homelessness of animals.
Preston also spotted a trend. “Across the state, it will definitely become more common,” he said of wildlife crossings. “It wouldn’t have been a project that I think could have been funded 10 or 20 years ago, but the change in mindset at the state and local level allowed the funding to materialize. so that we can actually build this project.”