A cougar crossing rises over a deadly L.A. freeway

Chalk for the cougar.

When conservationists first announced plans to raise $30 million for a wildlife crossing the deadly 10-lane stretch of Highway 101 in Agoura Hills, critics sneered and said, good luck”.

Now, 10 years later, the dream of building a bridge that could help mountain lions escape the “cycle of extinction” by providing them with safe passage to food and mates is coming true.

On Friday, Earth Day, hundreds of conservationists and legislators gathered with joy and a sense of victory on a weedy hill overlooking the Liberty Canyon Road exit to kick off the Wild Animal Crossing festival. Wild Wallis Annenberg.

Norma Meyer, foreground, right, and Karen Furnari, behind her, wearing a mountain lion shirt

Norma Meyer, foreground right, and Karen Furnari, behind her, wearing mountain lion robes as they attend the groundbreaking ceremony for Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing in Agoura Hills. Spanning 10 lanes of Highway 101, the crossing will, when completed, be the largest roadway in the world, the first of its kind in California, and a global model for urban wildlife conservation.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“We did it!” shouts Beth Pratt, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation. “For years to come, this wildlife crossing will be admired and studied as proof that humans and wildlife can coexist,” she said as she raised her voice in front of the stream of cars. traffic back and forth.

Scheduled for completion by 2025, the wildlife crossing ranks among the most ambitious non-political campaigns ever conducted in Southern California.

More than 5,000 individuals, organizations, agencies and businesses from around the world have contributed expertise and donations that, as of Friday, total more than $87 million – including the challenge grant $25 million from Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation.

Highway 101 traps larger animals on either side, preventing gene flow between them and thus endangering some species.

Highway 101 traps larger animals on either side, preventing gene flow between them and thus endangering some species.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“What we’re doing here today goes beyond conservation,” said Annenberg, who received a standing ovation from the crowd that had gathered with just a stone thrown from a high street. speed of carrying 300,000 vehicles per day.

“Today we begin to reconnect the land and its wildlife,” she said, “which should have never been broken in the first place.”

In a face of widespread congressional opposition to wildlife protection that has been applauded, Governor Gavin Newsom said, “This project will inspire the world – enjoy the heart.” yours, Washington!”

Partners include the National Wildlife Federation, National Park Service, Caltrans, Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Santa Monica Mountains Preserve, Area Conservation of Resources of the Santa Monica Mountains and architecture firm Living Habitats LLC, among many others.

An artist paints a 200 foot long, 165 foot wide mountain lion bridge that will cross Highway 101

An artist paints a 200-foot-long, 165-foot-wide mountain lion bridge that will span Highway 101 in Agoura Hills.

(National Wildlife Federation / Habitat)

Because the project spans interstate, Caltrans will oversee the design and construction — but the transportation agency does not provide funding.

The 200-foot-long, 165-foot-wide bridge will be the largest in the world and will serve as a lifeline for small, isolated cougar populations in the Santa Monica Mountains to the south and in the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains in the north.

These 12 to 15 mountain lions have the lowest levels of genetic diversity recorded for species other than the critically endangered Florida panther. Scientists say they face a 16% to 28% probability of extinction within the next 50 years.

“We know the harm our nation’s highways have on wildlife – and how to fix it,” said Tiffany Yap, a biologist at the Center for Wildlife Diversity.

“In addition to overpasses, we can upgrade existing culverts to be more wildlife-friendly, install roadside fences to guide animals to existing tunnels and look at mistakes,” she said. in the past when proposing new developments”.

Officials participate in the Groundbreaking Ceremony of the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Refuge in Agoura Hills.

Beth Pratt, left, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation; California Governor Gavin Newsom; Wallis Annenberg, president and chief executive officer of the Annenberg Foundation; and Collin O’Mara, president and chief executive officer of the National Wildlife Foundation, attended the groundbreaking ceremony for Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing in Agoura Hills.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Roads that are dangerous for wildlife can also be dangerous for motorists. According to the UC Davis Road Ecology Center, more than 44,000 wildlife collisions were reported on California roads between 2018 and 2020, resulting in approximately $1 billion in total human damage. .

The idea of ​​helping lone, elusive predators cross the freeway was partly inspired by the 2012 discovery of an extremely sassy 3-year-old, 140-pound lion lurking in the shadows of densely populated hillsides and attractions in and around Griffith Park.

During its 20-mile adventure east from the Santa Monica Mountains, the P-22 dodged traffic, crossed backyards, and navigated an obstacle course of sewers, bridges, and roads before returning home. home in the rugged outback of the park.

With the P-22 as the poster puma, the nonprofit #SaveLACougars campaign began in 2014 after the National Wildlife Federation and the Santa Monica Mountains Foundation joined forces to raise funds for an animal crossing. unprecedented in scale and cost.

Robert Rick, principal landscape artist for Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing in Agoura Hills

Robert Rock, lead landscape architect of Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing in Agoura Hills, for his son Alexander, 8, where 25 feet of land will be removed to create a slope that is part of the scene important for the project.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Skeptics have doubted that Americans will decide whether the recalcitrant predators of Southern California are worth the money. Or are they just another fad?

It’s a question Pratt pondered after taking on the job of campaign manager, and has a tattoo that looks like a P-22 on her left arm.

She soon learns that wildlife skirmishes are a hard sell: You need money to get through the blueprints, but you need the blueprints to raise money.

By 2020, the campaign still needs to raise tens of millions of dollars to avoid costly delays and complete construction on schedule by 2025.

Around the same time, biologists began to notice physical manifestations of extremely low genetic diversity among the few cougars that roamed 275 square miles in and around the Santa Mountains. Monica – a folded tail like the letter “L”, only one testicle drooping and abnormal. sperm.

The dire prognosis – what biologists call an extinction spiral – raises an urgent question: How long is it too late to save them?

“It’s a pivotal time for our conservation and our park,” said Seth Riley, wildlife branch manager for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. “It is exciting to see how science that we have worked so hard for many years can produce concrete action to benefit wildlife.”

In this May 2018 photo, mountain lion P-64 uses a tunnel to cross a highway in the Santa Monica Mountains.

In this May 2018 photo, mountain lion P-64 uses a tunnel to cross a highway in the Santa Monica Mountains.

(National Park Service)

As envisioned by the architects and Caltrans, the cougars would move – invisible to motorists – through a landscape that intersects steel and reinforced concrete with native vegetation. watered ground, including oaks and willows. Sound walls and light screens will reduce the noise and headlights of the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that pass through the area daily.

Fences up to 12 feet high will pull wildlife including mountain lions, lynx, deer, coyotes, skunks, badgers, squirrels, rats and lizards through the walkway. To reduce road erosion, the fence will also extend several miles in both directions from the project area.

Although the project was driven primarily by the need to connect the landscape, another challenge involved developing “natural-looking” bridge piers, accessing the slopes and walls that are expected to provide provide potential homes for small animals, birds and insects.

Safety nets will be installed to prevent anything from falling onto the road.

It remains to be seen whether predators like deer venturing onto the bridge can avoid becoming an unusually easy meal for hungry lions.

Meanwhile, Southern California is watching its mountain lion herd steadily decline in the Santa Ana, San Gabriel, San Bernardino, Santa Monica, Santa Cruz and Tehachapi ranges.

Habitats fragmented by urban development and highways, extremely low levels of genetic diversity, epidemics, wars over territory, rodent poisoning and human-caused wildfires People cause serious problems that lions in each of those ranges share.

Roadkill is also collecting tolls. Federal officials say since National Park Service biologists began studying mountain lions in Santa Monicas in 2002, motorists have attacked and killed at least 20 big cats in the study area.

A mountain lion was hit and killed by a motorist on Highway 405 early Thursday morning, the day before groundbreaking for the wild crossing.

P-97, an 18-month-old male mountain lion, attacked and killed on Southbound 405

P-97, an 18-month-old male mountain lion, was stabbed and killed on Highway 405 southbound near the Getty Center at around 1:00 a.m. on April 21, 2022.

(Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area)

The mountain lion is a non-threatened species in California. But a recent petition filed by the Center for Biodiversity and the Mountain Lion nonprofit to the state’s Fish and Game Commission argues that the six cougar races are isolated and distinct in their Genetics from Santa Cruz to the US-Mexico border constitute a subpopulation that should be listed as endangered.

The committee is expected to make a final decision later this year.

Meanwhile, news that the wildlife crossing had entered construction drew mixed reactions from residents of nearby Mediterranean-style duplexes and rooftop communities. cover with leaves.

One woman who has lived in the area for 32 years called it “a monstrosity,” adding a thumbs-down gesture for emphasis.

Then there’s Teri Francovic, a 50-year resident who sees this as a welcome addition to the Agoura Hills community.

“It’s definitely expensive – and some people are grumbling about it,” Francovic said as she prepared to go hiking with friends. “But the mountain lions were here first, and they needed to breed.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-04-22/a-cougar-crossing-rises-over-a-deadly-l-a-freeway A cougar crossing rises over a deadly L.A. freeway

Edmund DeMarche

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