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Zach Principe and Rachel Mason of The Nature Conservancy addressed members of the Bear Valley Springs Wildlife Coalition on April 22. The conservancy is working to improve wildlife connectivity along the Highway 58 corridor and representatives hope to engage with other stakeholders in Tehachapi and Kern County. 

As area residents and other motorists remain frustrated with delays caused by increased traffic and accidents attributed in part to the poor condition of sections of Highway 58 between Bakersfield and Tehachapi, planned projects will cost millions and are years from completion.

The Keene Pavement Project and SR 58 Truck Climbing Lane project are two efforts of the California Department of Transportation to resolve transportation problems in the region, but both are likely to require additional investment to solve a problem not addressed when the freeway was built in the 1960s — the barrier the freeway creates for wildlife.

The Nature Conservancy

Even if The Nature Conservancy, a leading environmental organization, had not acquired the former Loop Ranch — which borders the freeway for about 10 miles west of Tehachapi — the California Environmental Quality Act would require Caltrans to consider the impact of planned projects on wildlife.

But the fact that at the end of 2021 the organization did acquire the ranchland — and other adjacent ranches — in order to establish the 70,000-plus-acre Frank and Joan Randall Preserve in the Tehachapi Mountains clearly gives it a seat at the table as transportation planning continues.

Cara Lacey, director of Connected Lands for The Nature Conservancy, said in an email that she thinks Caltrans District 9 staff are “doing a wonderful job in working closely with TNC and CDFW to monitor, study and analyze multiple species that are or cannot cross Highway 58.

“Because the Frank and Joan Randall Preserve in the Tehachapi Mountains does border the work Caltrans will be doing with the project, we are a stakeholder that has been engaged in the project and during the process,” she added.

The conservancy also describes the importance of the region in a description of the Randall preserve on its website: “​​​​The Tehachapi foothills have long been a lifeline for nature and people on the move… this vast stretch of land is a critical link in a wildlife corridor that spans not just California but the entire west coast of North America from Mexico to Alaska… the preserve is a critical lifeline for hundreds of species, including some of our state’s most iconic like the black bear, mountain lion, bobcat and endangered California condor. In the face of climate change, this region will be more important than ever.”

Lacey said the organization has been working in the Tehachapi linkage for decades.

“We recognize Highway 58 as a barrier to movement and we have been envisioning the possibility for wildlife crossings under and/or over the highway for quite some time,” she said. “We would like to see a system of crossings here — almost like a connectivity hub for wildlife to move over and under safely and to increase the safety of drivers.”

Concerns

Among concerns is the K-rail (concrete barriers) previously installed to separate the east and westbound lanes. Intended as a safety feature, the K-rail creates problems for wildlife and can create hazards for motorists, Lacey said.

“For example, if an animal were to cross and then come face to face with the barrier, that split second to decide how to go over it is precious and could result in them getting trapped and then hit on the roadway,” she noted. “The animal will either decide to try to jump it, and/or go back. Both decisions could be fatal to the animal and impact vehicles and drivers that would hit the animal.”

She said the conservancy “has studied the culverts along the roadway in the past with our partners and we have done some roadkill studies as well and we have and continue to engage with scientists and experts within this area.”

Lacey noted that the Tehachapi linkage is a vital linkage that was called out for protection in scientific studies over the past two decades.

“We have confirmed and reconfirmed that this area and this linkage is vital to the function of the entire California ecosystem,” she said. “So, we have been working to protect it and connect it for nature and for people.” 

Wildlife connectivity

Wildlife connectivity initiatives across the country received new support in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, according to the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. A recent webinar offered by the board was designed to help participants make objective engineering and economic decisions to implement effective wildlife crossings and to identify engineering solutions to meet environmental and safety needs for wildlife crossings.

“Frequently, highway conditions expose wild animals and drivers to collisions, injuries, and death, which state departments of transportation mitigate through wildlife crossings structures,” the TRB said.

Lacey said she is excited about the possibilities for improving connectivity in the Highway 58 corridor between Bakersfield and Tehachapi. 

“Over the past four years, Katie Rodriguez with Caltrans District 9 and I, as well as our teams, have been discussing the possibilities and more recently conducting studies and analyses required to enable crossings,” she said. “With the Keene paving project opening up the door for possibilities and potential future projects, we began discussing the need for studies and further analysis to determine the best locations for future crossings.” 

Deer, mountain lions

Lacey said the conservancy and Caltrans staff have coordinated efforts to track animals and their movement including using wildlife cameras on existing culverts and further analysis, including a deer study by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is underway and will be coordinated.

“We are on our way, conducting separate studies but sharing the information so that we can work together to create a system of crossings,” she said.

The conservancy also works very closely with the University of California, Davis – both the Wildlife Health Center with Dr. Winston Vickers as well as the Road Ecology Center with Fraser Schilling, Lacey said.

“Dr. Vickers is a mountain lion expert and since TNC was able to protect so much land in the area, he and his partners and CDFWs’ Justin Dellinger will soon have the ability to understand the movements of mountain lions — a critical species currently being considered by CDFW for listing (as an endangered species) in southern California,” she noted.

She said providing greater connectivity to diversify the gene pool is among ways populations of the animals might be saved.

Funding

As indicated in environmental documentation recently released in connection with the Keene Paving Project, Caltrans sees potential wildlife crossings as possible mitigation for the future truck climbing lane project. 

“Caltrans and mitigation for their projects may or may not be able to install crossings without additional funding,” Lacey said. “Therefore, having funding for this area for transportation projects and wildlife projects together is crucial.”

She said the organization hopes to bring together a larger group of stakeholders.

“The city of Tehachapi and (Kern) County are important and needed stakeholders,” she said. “When studies are closer, we can all begin thinking together about what crossings could be and could accomplish for the safety of nature and people, with as little disruption as possible to transportation movement.”

A presentation to members of the Bear Valley Springs Wildlife Coalition on April 22 was among outreach efforts planned by TNC and the organization hopes to address other groups and also host some guided access to the Randall preserve in the future.

Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: claudia@claudiaelliott.net.