From anecdotal evidence alone, Highway 101 at the Gaviota grade has claimed three large wild animals in the past two months, two of them on the California endangered species list. A Caltrans study for where a crossing is needed to connect the landscape broken by the well-traveled highway begins in August and ranges from the top of the grade at Nojoqui summit in the Santa Ynez Mountains to Mariposa Reina along the coast.
The most recent victim is a mountain lion reported dead by two individuals on June 29; one described it as a small lion in the middle of the road and “kind of smeared all over the place” on the southbound 101; Highway Patrol could not confirm the kill, and Fish & Wildlife has not replied to inquiries. Before that, a juvenile female lion and a full-grown black bear were killed in the same area on May 16. According to Doug Campbell of the Coastal Ranches Conservancy, that was the fifth mountain lion confirmed as a kill in the past four years — the one in June is number six. Because the count is based on calls to the Highway Patrol, an unknown quantity of deer, skunk, bobcat, fox, raccoon, and coyote have been killed, too, according to maps Campbell’s group has compiled.
Mountain lions were placed on the state’s endangered list in 2019. Anyone who purposely kills a mountain lion can be fined $50,000, but motor vehicle accidents don’t count, said Tim Daly, a spokesperson for California Fish & Wildlife.
Caltrans has successfully built wildlife crossings as part of a large Highway 46 widening project between Paso Robles and Bakersfield. It includes fencing to direct wildlife into the tunnel and culverts, mainly for the San Joaquin kit fox, spokesperson Jim Shivers said, though mule deer and bats have also been spotted there. Two wildlife crossing projects are also set for Highway 17 in Santa Cruz County. One goes to bid this month, and another is being studied in the Santa Cruz Mountains outside Los Gatos.
Campbell’s group and the Gaviota Coast Conservancy tried to persuade Caltrans to enlarge the culvert planned at Cañada del Barro at the base of the Gaviota Pass, going so far as to appeal the project last fall to include a wildlife crossing. A last-minute deal brokered by Supervisor Gregg Hart had Caltrans agreeing to fund a $30,000 study. The consultant will study the pathways the animals are taking between now and next July in the hope of concluding where best to build a wildlife crossing in Gaviota.