Many Santa Cruz County residents may remember the story of the mountain lion who lost his way and ended up trapped in a downtown Santa Cruz drainage aqueduct before ultimately being rescued and released into the woods in May of last year.
The big cat's story ended in tragedy 5 months later on Halloween morning, when he was struck and killed by an automobile while crossing Highway 17.
Stephen Slade, deputy director of the Land Trust, said that the organization has long sought to create a safe crossing between the east and west side of the freeway, saying that it would create safer conditions for animals and motorists alike.
He said that the organization had worked with the UC Santa Cruz-based wildlife group Santa Cruz Puma Project to identify places where a wildlife tunnel would be the most effective.
There had always been an eye on the Laurel Curve vicinity, Slade said, due to the lack of development on either side of the road, frequent collisions with animals, and recent road improvements that had made the roadway more difficult for animals to cross.
When the parcel of land became available, he said, that sealed the deal.
“This emerged as the best area,” Slade said. “A developer was going to buy it and fell through.”
The Land Trust secured $610,000 in loans from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and approximately $40,000 in contributions to purchase the property, which closed escrow on Friday, Jan. 31.
“We're really excited by this,” Slade said. “It seemed like an impossible goal that would take forever.”
Chris Wilmers, a wildlife ecologist with Santa Cruz Puma Project, said that he was excited for the progress on the project, which he described as essential for the big cats' survival.
“The area around Laurel Curve seems to be an important crossing for mountain lions and wildlife,” he said. “The mountain lions drew us to that area ... it's great that the Land Trust acquired that property.”
Though Slade said that there is no timetable set for the project, the organization was working with Caltrans, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Committee, and the Santa Cruz Puma Project to move the project forward.
The next step, Slade said, will be to determine where exactly the underpass will exit on the west side, where there are two private parcels, including the Marywood Retreat Center.
“It's relatively undeveloped on both sides,” he said. “But we want to make sure we're not sending mountain lions into someone's backyard.”
Slade said that Caltrans was working with the Land Trust's Bay Area equivalent — the Peninsula Open Space Trust — on a similar underpass in the vicinity of the Lexington Reservoir.
In the long term, he said, the Land Trust will likely sell the parcel since there is a home already built on the land. However, the land would be sold with a large easement to allow plenty of space for wildlife to cross uninhibited.
For more information, visit http://www.landtrustsantacruz.org/
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