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Death to roadkill

A Caltrans fencing project may make motorists and wildlife safer, but questions remain

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Special today: Roadkill” reads a restaurant menu board in a cartoon tacked on a Cal Poly biology lab bulletin board. Vegetable side dish? Squash.

But roadkill is no laughing matter for the hundreds of wild animals (mostly ground squirrels, but also deer, feral pigs, skunks, and raccoons) that Cal Poly biology student researchers counted dead on Highway 101 north of Cuesta Grade last year. It’s no joke for motorists who collide with a deer, bear, or feral pig, either.

- BORDER FENCE :  Caltrans has decided to install several miles of tall fencing on both sides of Highway 101 to deter wild animals from using their normal travel route. Workers from the California Conservation Corps are installing the fencing just north of Cuesta Grade. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • BORDER FENCE : Caltrans has decided to install several miles of tall fencing on both sides of Highway 101 to deter wild animals from using their normal travel route. Workers from the California Conservation Corps are installing the fencing just north of Cuesta Grade.

There’s no telling how many local animals have made it safely across the highway as they’ve traveled along a well-used wildlife corridor that connects the mountainous terrain from Big Sur to Ventura. Now, the wildlife will have to choose a different route, since Caltrans has decided to fence off the busy road and try to channel animals under bridges and through culverts to cross to the other side.

The 8-foot tall, 3 1/2 mile long fence is nearly complete, running along both sides of Highway 101 between the Santa Margarita exit and the railroad overcrossing at the base of Cuesta Grade’s northern side. The project has raised questions about whether the wildlife habitat will now be fragmented, which can affect longterm survival for some animal species.

“Which is a greater impact, for wildlife to be hit by cars, or isolating them? We don’t know,” California Fish and Game wildlife biologist Bob Stafford told New Times.

Los Padres ForestWatch is also questioning the fencing: “The fence basically divides the habitat in two, which is not good for wildlife. In the end it will create more problems for wildlife,” said the group’s executive director, Jeff Kuyper.

Some animals were already choosing to cross under the highway along Santa Margarita Creek and the railroad undercrossing, according to research done for Caltrans by John Perrine, assistant professor in Cal Poly’s biological sciences department, and his students. Special motion-sensor infrared cameras caught a variety of animals in the act, including bears, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and foxes.

“The whole problem is we have two highways, one for vehicles, and one for animals, and they cross like this,” Perrine said, holding up his forearms in an X.

With a concrete highway-median barrier due for installation on the north side of Cuesta Grade next year, Caltrans decided to put up a “wildlife exclusion fence” as well.

Workers in the California Conservation Corps were measuring and cutting a stretch of wire mesh on a warm autumn morning, preparing to lift the fencing from its roadside resting place on mounded shrubs of red poison-oak leaves as cars and trucks roared past.

“The fence is not meant to stop all the animals, just 90 percent of them,” said Caltrans biologist Nancy Siepel as she watched the CCC fencing crew go around a bike-trail gate on the northern side of the grade. The fence was basically designed on the go, she explained, so it could best fit the wildlife’s natural crossing points.

Perrine, Siepel, and other Caltrans staff inspected the progress, and then headed toward the railroad tracks under an elevated highway crossing where wildlife would end up if they moved along the fence to its end. In the moist soil near the tracks under the bridge, Perrine discovered a bear track, most likely indicating that a bear had successfully crossed under the road.

“The CCC and the fence are making it like an hourglass, to funnel animals here and out the other side,” Perrine said. “It’s almost like a levee, keeping flood water out of one area and pushing it somewhere else.”

In addition to the fencing, the roadways at Tassajara Creek and Spanish Oaks Ranch are now blocked with electric-shock striping designed to jolt any animal that tries to get past. These solar-powered shock devices will be activated in mid-November when the fencing is complete, Siepel said.

Perrine and his students are hoping to continue their research for Caltrans once contracts are final, documenting whether the various kinds of wildlife are using the safe crossings. Along with Fish and Game’s Stafford, Perrine would also like to outfit some local black bears with special collars to document exactly where they roam. With tight budgets, though, they’ll likely use “hair snares” and DNA testing instead.

Kuyper of Los Padres ForestWatch is calling for monitoring of the crossings and of the fence itself.

“Are the undercrossings adequate? Will wildlife use them? Do they wander to the end of the fence, or do they just go back where they came from? Caltrans needs to be willing to adapt the fence if the crossings aren’t adequate,” Kuyper said.

He’s concerned about the lack of environmental documents for the fencing project, which Caltrans said is “categorically exempt” from the requirements the California Environmental Quality Act.

“Caltrans would have a hard time to say there’s no significant impact on wildlife,” Kuyper said. “I’m quite concerned that there’s no environmental impact study, and no opportunity for public input on how to make it better. We’re left in the dark.”

If Caltrans had completed an environmental impact report, various alternatives would have been examined and explained to the public, he said: “Our wildlife deserves a more thoughtful process than what’s been done here.”

Contributing writer Kathy Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@newtimesslo.com.

 

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