A crowd of hundreds on Friday celebrated the groundbreaking of what’s billed as the world’s largest urban wildlife crossing, one that will span a 10-lane freeway in Agoura Hills and may help save an isolated mountain lion population from extinction.
Gov. Gavin Newsom joined local, state and federal legislators, wildlife biologists and others to celebrate the beginning of construction for the $87 million crossing over Highway 101, a dangerous barrier for mountain lions, mule deer and other wildlife in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
“We did it!” Beth Pratt, a longtime advocate, called out to the crowd.
Pratt, California director for the National Wildlife Federation, which spearheaded fundraising efforts, spoke from a stage surrounded by grass-covered hills and the rush of freeway traffic.
“We are so honored to be here and celebrating with you all who looked at this impossible dream and like me said … we are not going to let this mountain lion population go extinct on our watch,” she said.
The planned bridge site near Liberty Canyon is one of the few places left in the area 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, more than a decade in the making, is just one of many wildlife experts say are needed locally and statewide to reconnect wildlife corridors necessary for species to survive.
More than 44,000 traffic collisions with wildlife costing at least $1 billion were reported on California highways from 2016 through 2020, according to a study by the Road Ecology Center at UC Davis.
“This is one of hundreds of wildlife corridors over freeways and obstructions,” said Joseph Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. “We should have legislation that inventories the critical wildlife passageways and then funds Caltrans to begin the process of crossing all of them.”
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 look like natural habitat, landscaped with native plants.
Construction is scheduled to start in June and finish by fall 2024, according to Caltrans, which is overseeing the project.
“We really don’t have any good connectivity across 101 currently,” said Seth Riley, wildlife branch chief for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
The National Park Service has studied mountain lions in the area since 2002 to see how they’re surviving in an urban area. They have found mountain lions and other animals approach both sides of the freeway but few attempting to cross it.
“The road is just so big and busy that animals just don’t even try,” Riley said.
An average of 300,000 to 400,000 vehicles travel that stretch of freeway daily, according to Caltrans.
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A mix of private, public funds
As of Friday, the National Wildlife Federation had raised $87 million for construction through a mix of public funds, private grants and donations.
Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation gave $25 million and the state Wildlife Conservation Board granted $20 million. Hundreds of smaller donors also contributed, some giving as little $5 and from as far away as Kansas and even Australia.
Newsom said Friday the state would 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 roam without risking their lives.
“You might say that when we break ground here at Liberty Canyon we’re also shattering the old ways of doing business, the old approaches that simply ignored the fragile ecosystem beneath our feet,” she said.
The funding model for the Annenberg bridge is not one that can be easily replicated every time a crossing is needed, said Fraser Shilling, who tracks wildlife collisions as director of the road ecology center.
“It happened that way because we don’t have state government responding the way that it should,” 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 important wildlife connectivity areas and roadkill hotspots and build at least 10 crossings a year.
The proposal aims “to fill a gap that we’ve had for a long time in California,” Shilling said.
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Scientists: More crossings needed
Assemblymember Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, who introduced the bill, told the crowd Friday that Liberty Canyon was just the start. AB 2344 would ensure CalTrans consider crossing into major transportation projects.
All crossings won’t have to be as big or costly. In some cases, an upgraded culvert may help or the work could happen in combination with a road project.
“If you design a project with wildlife movement in mind from the very beginning, it can be much more cost effective,” said Tiffany Yap, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group.
Reconnecting habitats would allow animals to roam more freely, find unrelated mates to attain a healthier gene pool and adapt more easily to climate change, Yap said.
“We have such a rich biodiversity here, but the fragmentation and the slicing up of these habitats really causes harm to a lot of these animals,” she said.
Crossings can reduce collisions with wildlife, protecting animals and people driving in those areas. But some spots may have relatively few collisions because the highway is too busy, too noisy or too wide for animals to even approach, leading to their isolation, Shilling said.
That’s the case near Liberty Canyon, where the busy multilane freeway is more of a barrier than a killer to mountain lions.
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Lions face extinction
Boxed in by development and highways, the small cougar population in the Santa Monica Mountains faces steep odds. The obstacles have led to inbreeding, low genetic diversity and lions killing each other.
The National Park Service is studying genetic differences on either side of the freeway of animals large and small, including the tiny western fence lizard and a bird called a wrentit.
“It’s really the whole range of animals that we’re focused on, even though mountain lions get the most attention,” Riley said.
Locally, the goal is to connect wildlife in the Santa Monica Mountains north to Los Padres National Forest,
“We have to first connect the Santa Monicas to the Simi Hills and the Simi Hills to the Santa Susanas,” Riley said.
That means finding good crossing spots on highways, including the 118 and 26. Researchers are currently monitoring species and their movement over those roads.
Riley expects the Liberty Canyon crossing will definitely get used and make a big difference for species, including mountain lions. Whether it is enough to save the Santa Monica Mountains cougar population from extinction remains to be seen.
“We certainly think it will help,” he said.
Cheri Carlson covers the environment for the Ventura County Star. Reach her at email@example.com or 805-437-0260.