SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS (KPIX 5) – Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains is not just a busy commuter route, but also a busy pathway for wildlife. Caltrans is set to build a tunnel to protect animals from being struck by cars on the route.

The tunnel would be built at the infamous Laurel Curve, which is not just dangerous for drivers, but is downright deadly for wildlife.

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For years, researchers have tracked how animals are drawn to this particular spot because of the shape of the terrain, and then try to dash across four lanes of traffic.

Over the span of 15 years on Highway 17, at least 55 deer and mountain lions have died.

A mountain lion that was struck and killed off Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

A mountain lion that was struck and killed off Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“They’re trying to get from one wild place to another, they’re trying to procreate, they’re trying to continue the species, and this road is killing them,” said Stephen Slade of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County.

Slade said the trust purchased 463 acres of land on both sides of the tunnel, paving the way for Caltrans to build the wildlife tunnel.

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“So we’re trying to solve that problem by giving them a safe route under the freeway,” Slade told KPIX 5. “Which also means that people on the freeway are not in danger of hitting deer or mountain lions or bobcats, all the animals who are hit at this spot.”

Highway 17 at Laurel Curve

Highway 17 at Laurel Curve

Wildlife crossings are rare in California. The first standalone project was back in 2008, on highway 89 through Kyburz Flats.

Slade said the Laurel Curve project would be looked to as blueprint for other crossings throughout the state.

“So it feels great to have it no longer be in doubt. This is gonna happen,” he said. “There’s a lot of frustrations when you’re trying to protect nature. And this is a great victory.”

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The crossing is expected to be complete in 2021.