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August 22, 2019

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Freeway crossing to give wildlife room to roam

LIKE many urban singles, mountain lion “P-22” lives a solitary life in a too-small habitat. And he has a hard time finding a mate in the big city.

Famous for traveling across two freeways and making a huge Los Angeles park his home, the lonesome big cat has become a symbol of the shrinking genetic diversity of wild animals that must remain all but trapped by sprawling development or risk becoming road kill.

Hoping to fend off the ex­tinction of mountain lions and other species that require room to roam, transportation offi­cials and conservationists will build a mostly privately funded wildlife crossing over a major Southern California highway.

It will give big cats, coyotes, deer, lizards, snakes and other creatures a safe route to open space and better access to food and potential mates.

The span along US 101 will only be the second animal over­pass in a state where tunnels are more common.

Officials say it will be the first of its kind near a major metrop­olis and the largest in the world, stretching 61 meters above 10 lanes of busy highway and a feeder road just 56 kilometers northwest of downtown LA.

“When the freeway went in, it cut off an ecosystem, we’re just now seeing impacts of that,” Beth Pratt of the National Wildlife Federation said.

Scientists tracking mountain lions fitted with GPS collars found roadways are largely trapping animals in the Santa Monica Mountains, which run along the Malibu coast and across the middle of Los Ange­les to Griffith Park, where “P-22” settled.

“They can’t get out of here to get dates, and cats can’t get in to get dates,” Pratt said.

“For those of us in LA, having a romance prospect quashed by traffic is something we can all relate to.”

The result of that isolation, researchers say, is imminent genetic collapse for mountain lions.

Habitat loss has driven the populations to inbreeding that could lead to extinction within 15 years unless the big cats regularly connect with other populations to increase their diversity, according to a study published this year by the University of California, Los Angeles; University of Cali­fornia, Davis; and the National Park Service.

The US$87 million bridge last month entered its final design phase.

It’s on track for ground breaking within two years and completion by 2023, according to engineer Sheik Moinuddin, proj­ect manager with the California Department of Transportation.

Construction will take place mostly at night and won’t re­quire any lengthy shutdowns of the 101 freeway.

Moinuddin said the Depart­ment considers it a “special” project that the agency hopes will inspire others like it across the state.

One of the reasons it’s special is that 80 percent of the money to build it will come from pri­vate sources, Pratt said. She’s in charge of fundraising and is using “P-22” — “the Brad Pitt of the cougar world” — as the poster cat for the campaign.

“He is world famous, hand­some, everybody loves him,” she said about the cougar that’s been photographed in his park home with the Hollywood sign as a backdrop.

Despite being the face of the project, P-22 is unlikely to use the bridge because he’s con­fined to the park many miles away. But many of his relatives could benefit, Pratt said.

More than US$13.5 in pri­vate funding has already been raised, Pratt said.

The remaining 20 per cent will come from public funds already allocated toward con­servation projects.

Some 300,000 cars a day travel that stretch of the 101 in Agoura Hills, a small city surrounded by a patchwork of protected wildland that the new crossing will connect.

Drivers on the busy freeway in the Liberty Canyon area might do a double-take as they speed under a bridge 50 meters wide with brush and trees grow­ing on top, seamlessly joining hillsides on both sides.

“And who knows, you might see an animal peeking over as it’s crossing,” Pratt said.

From the perspective of that animal meandering to or from the Santa Monica Mountains, the topography will hopefully be indistinguishable from the scenery on either side, said ar­chitect Clark Stevens.

His design will total about 3 hectares of landscape of which the bridge top occupies about half a hectare.

He’s working with biologists and engineers to design berms and hollows with high edges that will block sound and light from the lanes below.

“Ideally the animals will never know they’re on a bridge,” said Stevens, with the Resource Con­servation District of the Santa Monica Mountains.

“It’s landscape flowing over a freeway. It’s putting back a piece of the ecosystem that was lost.”

Wildlife crossings, bridges and tunnels, are common in western Europe and Canada.

A famous one in Banff Na­tional Park in Alberta spans the Trans-Canada Highway and is frequently used by bears, moose and elk.

The Los Angeles-area bridge has enjoyed nearly universal support, unusual for a public works project. The draft envi­ronmental impact document received nearly 9,000 com­ments — with only 15 opposed, according to the NWF.

Stevens said he’s encouraged by the California Department of Transport’s devotion to the project and its promise to con­sider more like it.

“The more options animals have, the better off they’ll be,” he said.


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