A crowd of hundreds celebrated Friday the launch of what was billed as the world’s largest urban wildlife crossing, which will span a 10-lane highway in the Agora Hills and may help save an isolated mountain lion population from extinction.
Gavin Newsom joined local, state and federal lawmakers, wildlife biologists and others to celebrate the start of construction for the $87 million Highway 101 crossing, a dangerous barrier to mountain lions, deer and other wildlife in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
“We did it!” Beth Pratt, the old advocate, called out to the crowd.
Pratt, the director of the California National Wildlife Federation, who led the fundraising effort, spoke from a platform surrounded by grass-covered hills and rushing highway traffic.
“We are honored to be here and celebrate with all of you who have gazed upon this impossible dream and as I said…we will not allow these mountain lions to go extinct in our watch,” she said.
The planned bridge site near Liberty Canyon is one of the few remaining places in the area with natural habitat on either side of the 101. The land at this site is publicly owned and protected from development.
But the crossing, which took more than a decade to set up, is just one of many wildlife experts who say it is needed locally and statewide to reconnect the wildlife corridors needed for the species’ survival.
more than 44,000 traffic collision With wildlife costing at least $1 billion on California’s highways from 2016 through 2020, according to a study by Road Environment Center at the University of California at Davis.
“This is one of hundreds of wildlife corridors over highways and obstacles,” said Joseph Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Preserve. “We should have legislation that confines the critical wildlife corridors and then fund Caltrans to start the process of crossing them all.”
Named for Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, the bridge is expected to be approximately 210 feet long and 174 feet wide – designed to look like a natural habitat, a landscape of native plants.
Construction is set to begin in June and finish by fall 2024, according to Caltrans, which is overseeing the project.
“We don’t currently have any good connectivity across 101 right now,” said Seth Riley, president of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Wildlife Branch.
The National Park Service has mountain lions lesson In the area since 2002 to see how they live in an increasingly urban area. They found mountain lions and other animals approaching from both sides of the highway but few tried to cross it.
“The road is so big and crowded that the animals don’t even try,” Riley said.
According to Caltrans, an average of 300,000 to 400,000 vehicles travel this stretch of highway each day.
A mixture of public and private funds
As of Friday National Wildlife Federation Raised $87 million to build through a combination of public funds, grants, and private donations.
Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation gave $25 million, and the State Wildlife Conservation Board awarded $20 million. Hundreds of small donors have also contributed, some of whom have given as little as $5 and from as far away as Kansas and even Australia.
Newsom said Friday that the state will provide the remaining funding needed to complete the Liberty Canyon crossing.
Wallis Annenberg said that wildlife crossings make a profound difference, giving animals a chance to roam without risking their lives.
“You could say that when we start here in Liberty Canyon, we are also smashing old ways of doing business, old ways that simply ignored the fragile ecosystem under our feet,” she said.
The Annenberg Bridge financing model is not a single model They can easily be replicated every time a crossing is needed, said Fraser Schilling, who tracks wildlife collisions as director of the Center for Road Environment.
“It just happened that way because we don’t have a state government that’s responding the way it should,” Schelling said.
One proposed solution, he said, is Assembly Bill 2344. It’s called Safe Roads and Wildlife Protection ActThe bill would require the state to identify important wildlife contact areas and road kill points and build a minimum of 10 crossings per year.
Schilling said the proposal was intended to “fill the gap that we’ve had for a long time in California.”
Scientists: More crossings are needed
Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, de Glendale, who introduced the bill, told the public Friday that Liberty Canyon was just the beginning. AB 2344 will ensure that CalTrans will consider wildlife crossings on major transportation projects.
Not all crossings will be large or expensive. In some cases, an upgraded duct may help or work can be done in conjunction with a road project.
“If you design a project with wildlife movement in mind from the start, it can be more cost-effective,” said Tiffany Yap, chief scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group.
Reconnecting habitats would allow animals to roam more freely, find non-relative mates to access a healthier genetic pool and adapt more easily to climate change, Yap said.
“We have such a rich biodiversity here, but the fragmentation and dismemberment of these habitats is really causing harm to a lot of these animals,” she said.
Crossings can reduce collisions with wildlife, and protect animals and people who drive in those areas. Some locations may have relatively few collisions because the highway is too crowded, too noisy or too wide for animals to approach, which leads to isolation, Schilling said.
Such is the case near Liberty Canyon, where the multi-lane highway is more of a hindrance than a killer for mountain lions.
lions face extinction
Trapped by development and highways, the young cougars of the Santa Monica Mountains face extreme hardship. Obstacles led to inbreeding, reduced genetic diversity, and lions killing each other.
The National Park Service studies the genetic differences on both sides of the highway for animals large and small, including a small western fence lizard and a bird called a wrentit.
“It’s really a whole group of animals that we focus on, although mountain lions get the most attention,” Riley said.
Locally, the goal is to connect the wildlife of the Santa Monica Mountains north with the Los Padres National Forest,
“First we have to connect Santa Monicas with Simi Hills and Simi Hills with Santa Susannas,” Riley said.
This means finding good crossing points on highways, including 118 and 26. Researchers are currently monitoring the species and their movement on those roads.
Riley expects the Liberty Canyon crossing to be used for sure and will make a huge difference to species, including mountain lions. It remains to be seen if that will be enough to save the Santa Monica Mountain cougar from extinction.
“We definitely think it will help,” he said.
Cheri Carlson covers the environment for the Ventura County Star. You can reach her at email@example.com or 805-437-0260.