Fence to protect endangered species part of Highway 119 construction project

The three and a half mile barrier will cost approximately $194,000. (KBAK/KBFX Photo)

Drivers heading along Highway 119 between Taft and Bakersfield will see a long, bright orange fence snaking along the north side of the road. Caltrans says it's there to protect endangered species during a construction project. They say it will help three specific animals.

The project runs from Tupman Road to Elk Hills Road. Drivers are advised of traffic control measures for about six weeks, the entire project will take about 7 months, and the big fence will be up during that entire time.

The barrier is about 3-and-a-half miles long, and Caltrans spokesman Christian Lukens tells Eyewitness News it's costing about $194,000.

The highway agency says the fence meets the requirements for "incidental take permits" issued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The installation of a temporary wildlife exclusion fence was followed by a small mammal trapping and relocation effort," Lukens explained by email. He says the barrier is supposed to keep small, burrowing animals from the active construction zone.

"It's a good mitigation measure," Dr. Brian Cypher told Eyewitness News. He's with California State University Stanislaus and the Endangered Species Recovery Project. "With this extra traffic, this extra activity that's going on out there, hopefully this will prevent more animal deaths."

He's not specifically part of this project, but has worked on endangered species issues for a number of years.

Caltrans says they're specifically trying to protect the San Joaquin antelope squirrel, listed by the state as threatened.

"It's not found in very many locations," Dr. Cypher said. "It can be very abundant in maybe certain, small locations, but in general there aren't very many of these locations."

Cypher says that means overall, the antelope squirrel is pretty rare.

And that's the same for another animal being protected by the orange fence, the Giant kangaroo rat. It's federally- and state-listed as endangered.

Caltrans says the long, fabric fence was installed a foot below ground, and 2-and-a-half feet above. It also has an 8-inch flap that folds over away from the highway side. Caltrans calls that a "lip."

Dr. Cypher says both the giant kangaroo rat and antelope squirrel are pretty good climbers, and the lip may keep them from getting into the construction zone.

"When the animal tries to climb up, they'll just hit that lip, and hopefully just go right back down," Cypher says, "and not get over that fence."

However, the barrier actually helps one species get over the fence. In several places Caltrans has put up ramps to help the endangered San Joaquin kit fox.

"The ramps are intended to help maintain a degree of permeability and provide opportunities for the kit fox to move through the project footprint," Caltrans spokesman Christian Lukens says in his email. "The kit fox can likely jump over the fence on its own, but the ramps will provide additional access to the other side of the fence if a kit fox finds itself in the construction zone at night-- when the species is most active."

And, Dr. Cypher says biologists who designed the protection may have taken into account the fact that kit foxes use a wide area for their habitat.

"It could very well be that some of the foxes that are near Route 119 in that area, could be using both sides of the road," he says.

Caltrans says the construction project itself will add an additional "truck climbing" lane on westbound 119, that will connect with two lanes currently in the area.

Shoulders will be widened on the north side of 119, an eastbound passing lane will be extended to Elk Hills Road, and Caltrans will add a rumble strip along the center line.

Engineers say that will give trucks more space to climb the hills, and give other drivers more room to pass. Caltrans officials say the project will ease traffic, spell fewer delays, and improve safety.

Is the extra cost for the long fence worth it?

"The population (of these endangered species) is declining throughout the Valley, just because we're still losing so much habitat each year," Dr. Cypher says. "To the extent that people want to keep these species around, then that amount of money is worth it."

This biologist hasn't seen the project first-hand, but he also says it seems to be one that will work to help save the animals.

"It's not totally foolproof," Dr. Cypher said. "If an animal really, really wants to get through, they could chew their way through, they could really climb and battle and get over the top if they want to. But, I think for the most part they'll go up against that fence, and just decide they're going to go back the other way."

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