SANTA CRUZ Since the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County finished work on its wildlife tunnel at Laurel Curve in January, more animals have been spotted traveling under the road in the Santa Cruz Mountains to get to the other side of Highway 17.
These include critters as small as skunks and squirrels and as large as bobcats, deer, coyotes and foxes. However, earlier this month, the Land Trust caught on camera one of the critters that has always wanted to be seen using the tunnel since it was completed: a mountain lion.
Video cameras installed by Pathways for Wildlife captured an uncollared male puma moving through the tunnel at 2:38 a.m. Nov. 28, and the footage was viewed by Land Trust staff earlier this month.
Sarah Newkirk, Land Trust executive director, said this is a very exciting moment for the land conservation nonprofit, because it validates the reason for its establishment at Laurel Curve.
We have good reason to believe it works, and this is actually proof that it works, he said. Our spirit of innovation has been rewarded, the vision of the Land Trust and its partners is now a reality for this area.
Plans for the wildlife tunnel began in 2012, as the Land Trust worked with Pathways for Wildlife and researchers at UC Santa Cruzs Puma Project and found that many animals, including mountain lions, were trying to crossing the highway. Some have even crashed into cars.
Newkirk said the goal of the Land Trust is to promote biodiversity by connecting different groups of species with each other. The biggest challenge is getting the animals to cross safely on a road as busy as Highway 17.
The Laurel Curve site, during the start of the wildlife tunnel project, recorded three collisions between vehicles and mountain lions, and there was a fourth during the planning stages, he said.
Additionally, Newkirk said scientists have discovered evidence of inbreeding within the mountain lion population.
The Santa Cruz Mountains’ carrying capacity for mountain lions is relatively low, he said. It can actually accommodate about 60 individuals, due to the size of their distance, so to maintain genetic diversity, mountain lions must be connected to other subpopulations.
In 2014, the Land Trust acquired a 10-acre property off Laurel Road and an additional 790 acres over time to control both sides of the highway. The project will then be funded through the passage of Measure D in 2016 as well as financial support from the California Department of Transportation, state Sen. John Laird and then-Assemblyman Mark Stone.
Local Caltrans staff have been critical partners in getting this wildlife tunnel out, Newkirk said. They were incredibly visionary and ahead of their time in terms of moving that agency forward.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held in April 2022, and construction was completed the following January. Within 15 minutes of Pathways for Wildlife installing cameras, Newkirk said a bobcat was caught walking through the tunnel. Ten months later, the first puma was spotted using the tunnel.
The sight of a mountain lion crossing the tunnel is exciting for the conservationist community. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, there are approximately 4,500 mountain lions in the state. That number in the Santa Cruz Mountains is smaller than Chris Wilmers, lead researcher of the Puma Project, estimated to be around 50.
Most of these big cats are found within large uncultivated tracts of land with many trees.
They don’t like open grassland, he said. They prefer more wooded or shrubby areas.
Pumas also venture into the neighborhoods of densely forested areas such as Bonny Doon and Felton and have even been found in Aptos. Sometimes, Wilmers said they’ve been spotted in downtown Santa Cruz, but it’s rare.
Wilmers said that top carnivores like mountain lions are important for ecosystems, and if they disappear, dramatic effects will occur. He cited the experiment of Lake Guri in Venezuela, where islands were created during the construction of the Guri Dam without large predators such as jaguars. This resulted in populations of leaf-cutter ants and howler monkeys, leading to the destruction of forests due to a lack of top predators.
You don’t want to lose any species, but when you lose your top carnivore, you often get drastic ecological changes that can affect the human population as well, says he.
So, Wilmers said it’s exciting to see a wildlife tunnel used by a mountain lion.
We waited, and it was finally delivered, he said.
Newkirk said the project is a connection to the overall link between the Santa Cruz Mountains and Gavilan Range and will be beneficial to people and wildlife.
Wild vehicle interactions cause hundreds of accidents a year, he said. Just one less thing to worry about when you’re driving on Highway 17.
The next project is a wildlife overpass on Highway 101, which Newkirk said is still in the planning stages.
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