First puma witnessed using new Santa Cruz County wildlife tunnel


SANTA CRUZ — Since the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County completed work on its wildlife tunnel at Laurel Curve in January, numerous animals have been spotted traveling under the roadway in the Santa Cruz Mountains to get to the other side of Highway 17.
These have included critters as small as skunks and squirrels and as large as bobcats, deer, coyotes and foxes. However, earlier this month, the Land Trust was able to capture on camera one of the critters it has always wanted to see use the tunnel since its completion: 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 it was a very exciting moment for the land conservation nonprofit, as it validated the reason to build it at Laurel Curve.
“We had good reason to believe that it would work, and this actually is the proof that it did work,” she said. “Our spirit of innovation is rewarded, the vision of the Land Trust and its partners is now a reality for this area.”
Plans for a wildlife tunnel date back to 2012, as the Land Trust was working with Pathways for Wildlife and researchers with UC Santa Cruz’s Puma Project and found that a lot of animals, including mountain lions, were trying to cross the highway. Some even collided fatally with vehicles.
Newkirk said a goal of the Land Trust is to promote biodiversity by connecting different groups of species with each other. The biggest challenge is for the animals to safely cross a roadway as busy as Highway 17.
“The site at Laurel Curve, at the time of the initiation of the wildlife tunnel project, had recorded three collisions between vehicles and mountain lions, and there was a fourth during the planning stages,” she said.
Additionally, Newkirk said scientists had uncovered evidence of inbreeding within mountain lion populations.
“The carrying capacity in the Santa Cruz Mountains for mountain lions is relatively small,” she said. “It can really accommodate about 60 individuals, given the size of their range, so in order to maintain genetic diversity, mountain lions need to be connected to other subpopulations.”
In 2014, the Land Trust acquired a 10-acre property off Laurel Road plus 790 additional acres over time to control both sides of the highway. The project would 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.
“The local Caltrans staff have been really critical partners in getting this wildlife tunnel in place,” said Newkirk. “They were incredibly visionary and ahead of their time in terms of moving that agency forward.”
Related Articles Environment | Colorado woman attacked, gored by mule deer outside her front door
Colorado woman attacked, gored by mule deer outside her front door Environment | How a series of gruesome seal deaths on the California coast led researchers to a surprise predator
How a series of gruesome seal deaths on the California coast led researchers to a surprise predator Environment | Bullfrog to become California’s amphibious illegal alien
Bullfrog to become California’s amphibious illegal alien Environment | Is covering my lawn with netting the best way to get rid of raccoons?
Is covering my lawn with netting the best way to get rid of raccoons? Environment | Can frog transplants bring an endangered species back from the brink in California? A groundbreaking ceremony was held April 2022, and construction was completed the following January. Within 15 minutes of Pathways for Wildlife installing cameras, Newkirk said a bobcat was captured walking through the tunnel. Ten months later, the first puma was witnessed using the tunnel.
The sighting of a mountain lion crossing through the tunnel was exciting for the conservationist community. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, there are approximately only 4,500 mountain lions in the state. That number in the Santa Cruz Mountains is even smaller as Chris Wilmers, lead researcher for the Puma Project, estimates there are approximately 50.
Most of these big cats are found within large undeveloped tracts of land with lots of trees.
“They don’t like open grassland,” he said. “They like more wooded or shrubby areas.”
Pumas have also ventured into neighborhoods in forest-dense areas such as Bonny Doon and Felton and have even been spotted in Aptos. Occasionally, Wilmers said they have been spotted in downtown Santa Cruz, but this has been rare.
Wilmers said apex carnivores such as mountain lions are important for ecosystems, and when they disappear, dramatic impacts occur. He cited the Lake Guri experiment in Venezuela, where islands were created during the construction of the Guri Dam that were free of big predators such as jaguars. This resulted in the populations of leaf-cutting ants and howler monkeys, which led to defoliation of forests due to the lack of apex predators.
“You hate to lose any species, but when you lose your top carnivore, you can often get really dramatic ecological change that can potentially impact human populations as well,” he said.
Thus, Wilmers said it was thrilling to see the wildlife tunnel being utilized by a mountain lion.
“We’ve been waiting, and it finally delivered,” he said.
Newkirk said the project is one connection in the overall linkage between the Santa Cruz Mountains and Gavilan Range and was beneficial to both humans and wildlife.
“Wildlife-vehicle interactions cause hundreds of accidents a year,” she said. “It’s 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.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here