On Friday, a crowd of hundreds celebrated the inauguration of what is billed as the world’s largest urban wildlife crossing, which will span a 10-lane highway in the Agoura Hills and could help save an isolated population of cougars from extinction.
Governor Gavin Newsom joined local, state and federal lawmakers, wildlife biologists and others to celebrate the start of construction on the $87 million Highway 101 crossing, a barrier dangerous to cougars, mule deer and other wildlife in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
“We did it!” Beth Pratt, a longtime attorney, called the crowd.
Pratt, California director of the National Wildlife Federation, who led the fundraising efforts, spoke of a scene surrounded by grass-covered hills and the rush of highway traffic.
“We are so honored to be here and celebrate with all of you who watched this impossible dream and like I said…we are not going to let this population of mountain lions go extinct on our watch,” a- she declared.
The planned bridge site near Liberty Canyon is one of the few remaining places in the region that has natural habitat on both sides of the 101. The land at this site is also publicly owned and protected from development.
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But the crossing, underway for more than a decade, is just one of many wildlife experts say are needed locally and across the state to reconnect wildlife corridors. necessary for the survival of the species.
More than 44,000 wildlife-vehicle collisions costing at least $1 billion were reported on California highways from 2016 to 2020, according to a study by the Road Ecology Center at UC Davis.
“This is one of hundreds of wildlife corridors above highways and obstacles,” said Joseph Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. “We should have legislation that lists critical wildlife crossings and then funds Caltrans to start the process of crossing them all.”
A dangerous barrier
Named the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, the bridge – expected to be around 210 feet long and 174 feet wide – is designed to resemble a natural habitat, landscaped with native plants.
Construction is expected to begin in June and finish in the fall of 2024, according to Caltrans, which is overseeing the project.
“We really don’t have any good connectivity on 101 right now,” said Seth Riley, wildlife branch chief for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
The National Park Service has been studying cougars in the area since 2002 to see how they are surviving in an increasingly urban area. They found cougars and other animals approaching from both sides of the highway, but few attempt to cross it.
“The road is so big and busy that the animals don’t even try,” Riley said.
An average of 300,000 to 400,000 vehicles travel this stretch of highway daily, according to Caltrans.
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A mix of private and public funds
As of Friday, the National Wildlife Federation had raised $87 million for the construction through a mix of government funds, private grants and donations.
Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation donated $25 million, and the state Wildlife Conservation Council granted $20 million. Hundreds of small donors also contributed, some giving as little as $5 and coming from as far away as Kansas and even Australia.
Newsom said Friday the state will provide the remaining funding needed to complete the Liberty Canyon crossing.
Wallis Annenberg said wildlife crossings make a profound difference, giving animals a chance to move without risking their lives.
“You could say that when we usher in the earth here at Liberty Canyon, we’re also breaking old ways of doing business, old approaches that just ignored the fragile ecosystem beneath our feet,” she said.
The Annenberg Bridge financing model is not one which can be easily replicated whenever a crossing is needed, said Fraser Shilling, who tracks wildlife strikes as director of the Road Ecology Center.
“It happened that way because we don’t have a responsive state government,” Shilling said.
One proposed remedy, he said, is Assembly Bill 2344. Called the Safe Roads and Wildlife Protection Act, the bill would require the state to identify areas of significant wildlife connectivity and road hotspots and construct at least 10 crossings per year.
The proposal aims “to fill a void that we have had for a long time in California,” Shilling said.
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Scientists: More crossings needed
Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, who introduced the bill, told the crowd Friday that Liberty Canyon was just the beginning. AB 2344 would ensure that CalTrans considers wildlife passage in major transportation projects.
Not all level crossings will have to be this large or expensive. In some cases, an improved culvert may be helpful or the work may be combined with a road project.
“If you design a project with the movement of wildlife in mind from the start, it can be much more cost effective,” said Tiffany Yap, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group.
Reconnecting habitats would allow animals to move more freely, find unrelated mates to reach a healthier gene pool, and adapt more easily to climate change, Yap said.
“We have such rich biodiversity here, but the fragmentation and carving up of these habitats is really hurting a lot of these animals,” she said.
Crossings can reduce collisions with wildlife, protecting animals and people who drive through these areas. But some places may have relatively few collisions because the highway is too busy, too noisy or too wide for animals to approach, leading to their isolation, Shilling said.
This is the case near Liberty Canyon, where the busy multi-lane highway is more of a barrier than a killer for mountain lions.
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Lions threatened with extinction
Framed by development and highways, the small population of Santa Monica Mountain cougars faces severe challenges. The obstacles have led to inbreeding, low genetic diversity and lions killing each other.
The National Park Service is studying the genetic differences on either side of the highway in large and small animals, including the small West Fence Lizard and a bird called a wrentit.
“It’s really the whole range of animals that we’re focusing on, although cougars get the most attention,” Riley said.
Locally, the goal is to connect wildlife from the Santa Monica Mountains north to the Los Padres National Forest,
“We need to connect the Santa Monicas to the Simi Hills first and the Simi Hills to the Santa Susanas first,” Riley said.
This means finding good crossing points on highways, including the 118 and 26. Researchers are currently monitoring species and their movements on these roads.
Riley expects the Liberty Canyon crossing will definitely be used and make a big difference to species, including mountain lions. Whether that will be enough to save the Santa Monica Mountain cougar population from extinction remains to be seen.
“We definitely think that will help,” he said.
Cheri Carlson covers the environment for the Ventura County Star. Contact her at email@example.com or 805-437-0260.
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