Highway 37 crossing for wildlife in the works

A busy stretch of road that runs along San Pablo Bay just south of Sonoma Raceway is considered a hot spot for roadkill.

Highway 37, which connects Novato to Vallejo, slices right through major habitat for jackrabbits, deer, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions. The high speed limit and heavy congestion makes the four-lane highway an extreme peril for animals wanting to cross.

“For animals, it’s bad news,” said Fraser Shilling, co-director of the UC Davis Road Ecology Center.

With wetland restoration going on at Sears Point, he said, more animals will be drawn to cross the highway to get to the newly restored marshes to the south for food and habitat. They currently don’t have much of an option except bolting across the road, where an average of 37,000 vehicles travel a day, Caltrans said.

“A road like that with that much traffic makes it difficult for animals to move,” said Julian Meisler, baylands program manager with the Sonoma Land Trust.

The Land Trust is working on creating a safer wildlife passage under the highway. It has teamed up with groups such as the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Point Blue Conservation Science’s Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed program, known as STRAW, to restore the creek that flows through a decades-old cattle underpass. They’re planting willows, oaks, coyote brush and other plants to make the culvert more attractive for wildlife to use.

Animals avoided the underpass, about three-quarters of a mile west of the intersection of Highways 37 and 121, because of the lack of trees and shrubs to serve as cover, said Don Brubaker, manager of the wildlife refuge, which owns and manages the land to the south of the highway.

“We need to advertise this as a way to go (across) that wildlife understand,” Brubaker said, adding the best way to do so is by creating desirable habitat for animals.

“There is the potential for animals to be moving from Tolay Lake Regional Park down to the marsh,” Meisler added. “It’s really a disconnected landscape right now.”

He said the project will expand the animals’ range. The Land Trust placed a camera at the underpass a few months ago to see what animals were moving through the area. So far, it captured coyotes and jackrabbits.

Once they add more plant coverage, wildlife experts say, they may find more bobcats, deer and mountain lions roaming the area.

“By putting more plants there, they have more choices for cover, more choices for shade and more choices for food,” said STRAW restoration manager John Parodi, who called the underpass a critical piece for the movement of animals.

“Highway 37 is a bottleneck for wildlife,” he said.

More than 250 Petaluma and Novato students involved in his program have helped plant nearly 500 trees and shrubs, including coast live oak, valley oak and California buckeye, Parodi said.

The cattle underpass was built in the 1920s, according to Caltrans spokesman Allyn Amsk. He said the agency had to repair the culvert and cattle crossing last year after it previously filled with debris and flooded, damaging the foundation. Caltrans workers replaced the eroded section, put in a new concrete floor and made repairs to the damaged highway above, costing around $500,000, Amsk said.

“If the culvert is ever filled up again, water will not erode or damage the repaired cattle crossing,” he said in an email.

Meisler said they’ll be doing more planting around the underpass in the summer and fall. A second underpass is located near the wildlife refuge’s buildings, but animals may not be as likely to use it as the first culvert that runs only into grass fields, he said.

While the creek restoration project is small in comparison, he said, “It falls so nicely with the tidal restoration.”

The Sonoma Land Trust raised $20 million to buy the Sears Point Ranch property in 2005. It’s been working on restoring the site, once used for cattle grazing and a hunting club, to its natural state.

“The vision of a bobcat moving from the hills down to the bay safely without having to cross a major highway is something we’d love to see,” Meisler said.

Shilling said underpasses are a great way to protect animals and drivers. “If something runs out like a jackrabbit, coyote or even a deer, people instinctively swerve to avoid,” which could cause wrecks, he said.

The state has been slow in building animal crossings, Shilling said. About one or two are built each year, he said. Restoring old culverts as Sonoma Land Trust has done is an affordable and effective way to create safe crossings, he noted.

Meisler said he doesn’t have an exact cost for the improvements to the creek off Highway 37, but it will be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

“If you want safe roads and want to keep wildlife around, we need projects like this,” Shilling said.

You can reach Staff Writer?Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

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