A local crowd showed up at last Monday’s open house at the King Gillette Ranch Visitor’s Center, where experts were on hand with photos and displays, and informally answered questions from the public about the planned Wildlife Crossing at Liberty Canyon. 

The primary project partners represented at the open house were Caltrans, the National Park Service, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA). 

Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, California director of the NWF, the lead fundraiser for the project, went over the funding history. The MRCA provided the $250K needed for the initial project study, which has now been completed. The California Wildlife Conservation Board gave a $650,000 grant to the Resource Conservation District for the design of the crossing. Private donations from the Annenberg Foundation and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, plus a $1 million grant from the California Coastal Commission, provided the $1.5 million needed for an environmental assessment by Caltrans, which has been newly finalized.

The NWF is now in the most difficult phase of fundraising, which is to raise $10 million for the final design and engineering of the wildlife crossing by Caltrans. About $2 million has been raised so far, but another $8 million is needed by 2020 to keep the project on track. 

Pratt-Bergstrom said it will be easier to raise funds for the actual construction costs of up to $50 million than it will be to get the $10 million for the current design/engineering phase “because a lot of major foundations are willing to write seven-figure checks for the construction, but won’t donate to the pre-construction phase.”

Caltrans said it was unsuccessful in trying to get federal funds for the project, because there is so much competition. Pratt-Bergstrom said the only state funds that can be used for a wildlife crossing are those earmarked specifically for conservation, which would now include the recently passed California Proposition 68 Parks, Environment, and Water Bond (June 2018).

If all goes well with the fundraising, construction of the wildlife crossing will begin in 2020 and finish in 2022. Pratt-Bergstrom said the project has widespread support—in terms of written public comments received, nearly 8,000 residents have expressed support for the project, while only 15 expressed opposition. 

Jeff Sikich is a biologist with the National Park Service, which has been researching mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains and nearby since 2002. He said that at any given time, there are usually 10 to 15 mountain lions in the mountains, including two or three adult males and four to six adult females. 

When asked why mountain lions can’t just be physically relocated across the freeway, he indicated national parks won’t do that unless or until a “population viability analysis” shows the cats to be at an extremely critical juncture, with numerous genetic defects due to inbreeding, which “won’t happen for about 35 years,” he said. 

Sikich also pointed out that a wildlife crossing would help many kinds of animals, not just mountain lions. 

“Lions are the poster cat, but bobcats, reptiles and even small birds will benefit,” he said. 

The crossing is a proposed naturally landscaped overpass and wildlife corridor that will be built over the Ventura (101) Freeway and Agoura Road in Agoura Hills, near the Liberty Canyon exit—one of the only undeveloped areas along the 101.

The wildlife overpass “will be naturalized on both sides so animals crossing over at night can’t see the headlights,” explained Timothy Pershing, senior field representative for Assemblymember Richard Bloom. “Paths on both sides of the freeway will lead to it, and it will never be closed, although people will be asked to stay off of it.”

As it stands now, the mountain lions of the Santa Monica Mountains are geographically isolated and surrounded by freeways, with too much inbreeding taking place. Without the ability to disperse and add new genes to the gene pool, the local lions are expected to die out in about 50 years from inbreeding abnormalities. Experts hope the wildlife crossing will prevent that from happening—crossings have been used successfully for years in Europe, Canada and other parts of the U.S.

National Wildlife Federation is partnered with the Santa Monica Mountains Fund to create the “Save LA Cougars” campaign. Donations for the wildlife crossing can be made at savelacougars.org

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