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Cougar (Puma concolor)
By Cheri Carlson | Ventura County Star
Caltrans plans to break ground early next year for a wildlife crossing that experts say could help save an isolated population of mountain lions from extinction.
The first of its kind crossing in Agoura Hills would bridge a busy 8-lane stretch of Highway 101, a dangerous barrier for species from mountain lions to mule deer in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
The $87 million project led by a group of public and private agencies would connect the Santa Monica Mountains on the south to other areas to the north.
More than a decade in the making, the project likely will go out to bid next month, allowing construction to start in January, said Sheik Moinuddin, a Caltrans project manager.
“Hopefully, we are very close to the finish line,” Moinuddin said.
The wildlife bridge is a rarity in the world of freeway overcrossings in that a nonprofit group rather than public agencies garnered much of project funding, according to Moinuddin.
The National Wildlife Federation, a conservation organization, so far, has raised more than $72 million, a mix of public money and private grants and donations. The group hopes to raise the rest of the estimated $6 million in construction costs by the end of the year, said Beth Pratt, the federation’s California director.
“When I started in 2012, we had zero funding and the crossing itself was just kind of an idea,” Pratt said.
She first heard about challenges the mountain lion population faces from a National Park Service scientist years ago.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Not on my watch. I’m not going to let this happen,’” Pratt said.
Earlier this year, the Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation gave $25 million toward the project and the state Wildlife Conservation Board approved a $20 million grant, getting the project closer to its $85 million campaign goal.
The project has hundreds of smaller donors, some giving as little $5 and from as far away as Kansas and even Australia, Pratt said.
Designing a bridge for wildlife proved far more complicated than one for vehicles.
“You can’t make them cross,” Moinuddin said of wildlife. “If they do not cross, then it is a failure. We can’t have that.”
Caltrans called in experts to help design a crossing that would work for multiple species. The result became what will be a first of its kind in the state, Moinuddin said.
Recently named the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, the 200-foot-bridge is designed to look like natural habitat, landscaped with native plants.
“You are bringing the landscape over the freeway,” Pratt said. “The top is going to be a living ecosystem.”
The purpose of the bridge is to expand the range of mountain lions and other wildlife that have been hemmed in by highways and suburban development.
The cougars’ isolation has led to inbreeding, which reduces genetic diversity and can ultimately cause the small population in the Santa Monica Mountains to become extinct, said Tiffany Yap, a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Over time, we’ve really done a good job of fragmenting our landscapes, which has affected a lot of the wildlife and habitats that we live around and that a lot of people enjoy,” Yap said. “I think a lot of people didn’t realize what kind of impacts we would have on some of the wildlife and habitats around us.”
Protected wildlife habitat flanks both sides of the freeway at the planned Liberty Canyon site, making it more likely animals will use the crossing, she said.
In 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Mountain Lion Foundation petitioned the state to consider protection for six populations of cougars including in the Santa Monica, Santa Ana, Santa Cruz, San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains.
The California Fish and Game Commission agreed to give mountain lions temporary protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, triggering a review of the populations’ status.
Find more information about the proposed crossing at https://savelacougars.org/.