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Construction begins on tunnel under Highway 17 to allow wildlife to safely cross

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, Calif. (KION-TV) — Ground is now broken for a new wildlife tunnel in Santa Cruz County aiming to create a safe passage for wildlife to cross Highway 17.

Friday morning, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, along with Caltrans and Graniterock construction held an event to celebrate the project, which has been more than a decade in the making.

"This is an example of what our future should look like," said Chuck Bonham, Director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). "A lot of our roads around California prohibit animals to move back and forth."

Construction for the project actually began back in February, and Caltrans says they hope to have it completed in December of this year — with minimal closures affecting drivers on the actual highway.

Currently, wildlife has to navigate around the 65,000 vehicles that travel from Santa Cruz County to Silicon Valley every day.

"California has more types of animals and plants than any other state," said Bonham. "Animals need an ability to wander and find a mate so they can have a family and the next generation can survive."

The idea for the project came to fruition using data on critter mortality from the UC Santa Cruz Puma Project. Then in 2014, the Land Trust began acquiring acreage and permits for the land surrounding Laurel Curve.

"This is the least developed strip of land in the Santa Cruz Mountains," said Sarah Newkirk, Executive Director for the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. "This is the place where the most animals are being killed trying to cross the highway."

Properties that have been permanently secured by the Land Trust.

The Land Trust says between 2012 and 2017, more than 350 animals were killed by vehicles along the highway. Five of those were mountain lions.

"The total population of pumas in the Santa Cruz Mountains is 60, and so losing five pumas is a tremendous impact on that population," said Newkirk.

This project is one of the first of its kind, leading the way for similar construction all across the state. On Earth Day, construction began for the world’s largest wildlife overcrossing across 10 lanes of Highway 101 in northwest Los Angeles.

"This project [on Highway 17] created a new funding mechanism that allows Caltrans and the Department of Fish and Wildlife to exchange mitigation credits in a way that was unique at the time. And since that time, a new state law, SB 790, was written that will allow more projects like this throughout the state. So we'll be able to connect populations of mountain lions and other wildlife throughout their range in California," said Newkirk.

And the Land Trust isn't stopping at Highway 17. They are hoping to close on the purchase of another plot of land near Aromas in Monterey County, with plans to build a crossing over Highway 101.

"Allowing the Santa Cruz mountain population of mountain lions to meet up with the Gavilan range population," said Newkirk.

The project is being paid for with State Safety Funding, the Land Trust as well as $5 million from Measure D which was passed by voters in 2016.

You can take a virtual 360 tour of how the undercrossing will look here.

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Lisa Principi

Lisa Principi is a reporter at KION News Channel 5/46.

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