U.S. Route 101 (U.S. 101) in California is a major coastal route that links southern and northern California via an extensive highway system. As part of an overall watershed restoration plan in the Gaviota Creek watershed in Santa Barbara County, wildlife passage is an important issue that should be addressed to ensure healthy wildlife populations in the future. The 4-lane highway, which includes concrete median barriers, bisects the watershed at Gaviota Pass creating an impediment to landscape-scale wildlife movement between two very large blocks of natural landscape in the Santa Ynez coastal range. Coastal Ranches Conservancy, California Department of Transportation District 5, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Region 5 and local wildlife connectivity specialists have come together to develop a study that results in a preliminary wildlife connectivity plan for the watershed and adjacent areas.
East of Gaviota Pass lies the Los Padres National Forest and to the west lie several large cattle ranches with primarily oak woodland, grassland, chaparral and riparian habitats. Some of the private cattle ranches have already been protected from development by conservation easements, and several others are in the process of placing conservation easements on their lands. The 24,000 acre Bixby Ranch at Point Conception is now the Dangermond Preserve, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. In addition, most of the 65 miles of shoreline from Gaviota State Park on U.S. 101 to north of Vandenberg Airforce Base is restricted from public use and provides access for wildlife to the rich resources of the tidal zone and beach frontage. This mosaic of public and private lands creates an expansive system of natural habitats on either side of U.S 101.
The study area, which includes the Gaviota Pass, covers about 10 miles of highway beginning in the north near Nojoqui Summit and ending to the south near Mariposa Reina at Gaviota. The first phase of the study will use camera traps to survey what species of wildlife are using existing culverts and crossing points along U.S. 101 in the study area. At the same time, drive-by surveys identifying all roadkill in the study area will be made either weekly or bi-weekly. The data will be compiled and analyzed to locate specific problem areas and/or locations where wildlife are crossing successfully. The second phase will develop a preliminary plan with recommendations to remediate problem areas and enhance those areas where wildlife can cross successfully.
The plan will also include potential strategies for collaboration to address improvements to wildlife passage and ways to reduce roadkill on U.S. 101 so that these public and private lands can continue to sustain the full complement of species that occur here today. The wildlife connectivity plan will be available to transportation agencies, resource agencies, universities and other local conservation organizations as a regional planning tool.