LOS GATOS, Calif. (KRON) — Not many Highway 17 drivers who travel “over the hill” commuting to and from San Jose will say they have an easy commute. The heavily-used highway is notoriously prone to crashes with its sharp turns and blind corners.
Animals who live in the forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains are also weary of Highway 17.
There are zero culverts, tunnels, or bridges designed for wildlife crossings.
“Right now Highway 17 really serves as a barrier to all movement of animals up on the San Francisco Peninsula to the rest of the state and coastal ranges,” said Aaron Peth, a planner with Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.
“While it’s a peninsula, it’s kind of more of an island due to Highway 17,” Peth said.
But a boost in state funding is paving the way for Highway 17 wildlife crossings to be built within the next five years.
Environmentalists cheered Budget Act 2021 (SB/AB 129), passed by the State Legislature last week. Sen. Dave Cortese helped secure $2 million in the state budget for the Highway 17 Wildlife and Trail Crossings project, led by Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.
The goal is to connect animals roaming in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Diablo Range, and Central Coast.
One small tunnel under Highway 101 in Gilroy has already proven that thousands of animals will gladly use the crossings instead of making a dangerous dash across the road.
A remote camera set up at the Highway 101 tunnel went viral when it captured an adorable moment between two unlikely buddies. A coyote wags its tail as it waits for a badger to stroll through the tunnel. It appears the friends are traveling together.
The camera has recorded several species using the tunnel, including bobcats, raccoons, and a pack of cute coyote cubs.
There have been more 350 animals hit on Highway 17 in the last eight years, according to Pathways for Wildlife.
Some of the collisions have been between vehicles and mountain lions who have no way to crossing other than to leap over four lanes of traffic and concrete barriers.
The $2 million for Highway 17 wildlife crossings is one chunk of $60 million approved in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state budget for wildlife crossings statewide.
About $7 million was dedicated to building a bridge at Liberty Canyon for wildlife roaming in the Santa Ana and Santa Monica Mountains. Cougars in the Santa Ana and Santa Monica Mountains face a 99% chance of extinction within the next 50 years.
That’s because habitat barriers created by Southern California’s highways have caused genetic isolation for cougar populations.
“They’re inbreeding with each other, and they face this extinction vortex,” Mari Galloway of Wildlands Network told CalMatters.org.
Mountain lions are solitary animals that need huge habitats. A male cougar’s home range stretches more than 100 square miles, according to the US Forest Service.
This can cause a cascade effect that knocks an entire ecosystem out of balance said Neal Sharma, wildlife linkages program manager of Peninsula Open Space Trust.
“Preserving and restoring the connections to other larger habitat areas is critical to the ecological health of the whole landscape and system,” Sharma said.