Wide bridges that mimick grasslands and tall corrugated iron tunnels have saved countless wild animals in places where their habitat is shared by highways and the 3,500-pound vehicles that use them. California’s first wildlife crossing along Highway 89 in the Tahoe National Forest reduced the number of animals killed there from 29 in one decade to five in the next seven years. Caltrans and a large group of stakeholders hope to do the same in the Gaviota Pass area of Santa Barbara County.
On December 2, about 29 people from nonprofits and state and regional agencies met to discuss the beginning of a year-long study of a six-mile area from Nojoqui Grade to Mariposa Reina. Stakeholders included Joan Hartmann, director of the county’s 3rd ward, where the Gaviota coast is located. She recalled that a highway structure was so strange for wildlife, but said of the meeting, “There really is a science of road ecology and there really is a whole range of measures that help to better protect and guide animals . “
Map from the “Gaviota Wildlife Corridor Project Report” with hotspots of street killers | Photo credit: Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration, UC Santa Barbara
An independent scientific advisor, not affiliated with Caltrans, is being hired, stressed project planner John Olejnik, who is experts in wildlife corridor studies: ICF / Jones & Stokes. “We’re paying for it,” said Olejnik, of the $ 327,000 that Caltrans will cost the study, “and we’re very excited about the results. We will use this to decide together as a group how we will work together to implement the results. “
Landowners in the area are an important part of the stakeholder group, Olejnik said, as crossing an animal may require land that Caltrans does not control. “It’s not always a fence or a bear passage or a ramp,” he said. “This could be land protection. Or if things are built too close to the autobahn, this can limit our options. “
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One of the groups involved, the Coastal Ranches Conservancy, has a good idea of where intersections should be built. The nonprofit funded a study by the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration at UC Santa Barbara that looked at data over the past 60 years for the same six mile stretch. The Gaviota study, completed in January 2020, showed that cars were taking their toll on amphibians, reptiles, birds, and insects, but it was mammals that were either most frequently captured or killed. Mule deer topped the list, followed by the California vole, gray fox, raccoon, and mountain lion. Three places stood out in particular: Mariposa Reina, the motorway service areas and the Gaviota tunnel as well as the intersection of motorways 101 and 1. The last two are the places where two mountain lions and a bear were hit by cars and died last summer, both of them at the apex, predators with a range of 50-150 square miles.
In addition to the horror of hitting a large animal, drivers are also at risk of personal and financial damage: a study by the University of Montana found that hitting a deer costs more than $ 8,000 on average, and the more than a million such Incidents per year die 200 people nationwide.
While Caltrans will bear the cost of the study, funding to build the actions recommended by the study and stakeholders is an open issue. The world’s largest animal bridge is being built in the Agoura Hills, a $ 87 million overpass that will span 10 lanes of the 101 to provide a 60 m long and 165 m wide passage for endangered mountain lions and other species Santa Monica mountains. The National Wildlife Federation raised $ 72 million for the transfer in nearly a decade of fundraising. In Santa Cruz County, Caltrans is building a 60-foot bridge and large animal tunnel along a deadly portion of Highway 17. The $ 12 million Laurel Curve project included $ 2 million from land Trust of the Counties, which received 460 acres of conservation land for the nearby mountains, $ 4.5 million from the state, and $ 4 million in local transportation tax.
Supervisor Joan Hartmann commended the Coastal Ranches Conservancy and the Gaviota Coast Conservancy for relying on the original 101 culvert project that got the ball rolling. “As with anything for Caltrans, you have to study it, follow a series of steps, and go through the process,” she said. But in a year’s time “there will be so much money for the infrastructure,” said Hartmann about the new federal law, which provides for exactly 350 million dollars.
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