Two large animals were killed on Highway 101 near the Gaviota Pass on May 16, a situation that would go unremarked if not for the dispute between Caltrans and two conservation groups over a wildlife crossing in the area.
That morning, a young mountain lion was found dead in the center divider, and late that Sunday night, a 300-pound black bear was hit by two cars. The kills were called in to the Buellton Highway Patrol office for removal from the traffic lanes. In turn, the officers called Fish & Wildlife and Caltrans to take the dead animals away. Necropsies by Fish & Wildlife found that both were in good health but had died of their injuries. The cat was a female juvenile, one to two years old, and about 70 pounds. The bear was a male, very large, and eight to 12 years old. Both were hit in the Gaviota Tunnel section of the 101 — the cat between the tunnel and the southbound rest area, and the bear in the northbound lanes a half mile south of the junction with Highway 1 — a steep and rocky area where the highway splits the Santa Ynez Mountains.
That part of the 101, where it turns northward, away from the ocean, is a roadkill hotspot, according to the Road Ecology Center‘s state highway analysis website at UC Davis. The stretch of the 101 where Cañada del Barro is found, central to the dispute, is also a hotspot, as are sections of Highway 1 east of Vandenberg Village and State Route 154 at Lake Cachuma. According to Officer Valdez of the Buellton CHP office, the 101, 1, and 154 each claim big animals every year, mostly deer and wild pigs.
But mountain lions were placed temporarily on the state’s endangered species list in 2019, pending an ongoing study on whether the estimated 500 big cats in Central and Southern California should be officially listed. Losing a healthy young female matters. As well, motorists running into deer or bear can be badly injured or killed.
As for the Caltrans wildlife crossing study set to begin in July, it will run for one year, a compromise reached during an appeal brought by the Gaviota Coast Conservancy and the Coastal Ranches Conservancy over a culvert proposed where Cañada del Barro creek dips beneath the 101.
The conservancies argued that as long as Caltrans was going to replace the culvert, which was deteriorating, why not make it large enough for animals to see daylight at either end. It should also prevent deer from leaping into lanes of traffic by funneling them toward the underpass with fencing. Of the 14 culverts between Gaviota and Goleta, it would be the only one designed for wildlife, said Doug Campbell of appellant Coastal Ranches Conservancy, and his group produced webcam stills of bears, bobcats, deer, and mountain lion at the site.
Caltrans first said no, then when Supervisor Gregg Hart suggested a compromise after the appeal before the Board of Supervisors in September, Caltrans agreed to spend $30,000 on a wildlife crossing study for the Gaviota region. Campbell noted that both the Gaviota tunnel area and Cañada del Barro to the east were well-known to be roadkill hotspots.
In further talks with the Coastal Commission and the conservancies, Caltrans said its latest estimate to widen the culvert from 6 feet to 8 feet was about $15 million. At 500 feet long, the larger-diameter passageway with a flat bottom required a tunneling project, not just a “jack and bore” pipe, which doubled the costs. Without a wildlife study, Caltrans’ project engineers couldn’t justify the increased size and costs.
Though agencies like CHP, local law enforcement, Caltrans, Fish & Wildlife, and County Animal Control could be involved in roadkill notifications, no rule says kills must be reported. Groups such as the UC Davis ecology center and the California Roadkill Observation System, which Davis developed for Fish & Wildlife, have collected masses of animal death information since 2003 and 2009, respectively, through volunteer submissions and donations. The Caltrans-sponsored study will be one more entry in understanding precisely where animals cross Highway 101 in Gaviota.