The Devil’s in the Details for Wildlife Crossing

Seth Riley in December 2013, with P-32 when she was about 2 months old. She became one of very few cougars to successfully cross the 101 freeway but was killed trying to cross the 405 in 2015. Photo courtesy of NPS

Should the proposed wildlife crossing at Liberty Canyon be kept wild or add recreational activities? What will be the impacts on local neighborhoods? Should it be an overpass or a tunnel?

The Liberty Canyon wildlife crossing is a proposed vegetated overpass spanning the Ventura Freeway and Agoura Road in Agoura Hills, California. When built, it will connect the Simi Hills to the north and the Santa Monica Mountains to the south, and will be the largest wildlife crossing in the United States.

The Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation (LVHF) invited residents and communities to attend a meeting on September 19 for an update on the status of the project from its key planners and decision makers.

The meeting was facilitated by LVHF president, Kim Lamorie, with representatives of the National Park Service (NPS), Los Angeles County Supervisor Kuehl’s office, Cal Trans and the City of Agoura Hills, attending.

About 70 people came to hear the most recent information, ask questions, submit ideas and voice neighborhood considerations.

Seth Riley, who has been studying mountain lions since 2002, began the evening with a presentation describing the plight of the mountain lions who could be extinct in 50 years, trapped as they are by L.A.’s freeways and often killed trying to cross them.

The problem is 101 is a huge development corridor,” he said. “There’s almost nowhere left that has natural habitat on even one side of the freeway, let alone on both sides. That’s why we are so focused on getting a wildlife crossing built. There’s a very small population of mountain lions trapped by the freeway, and that leads to them breeding with close relatives, and likely leads to an increase in lions killing each other.”

Riley is an associate adjunct professor at UCLA’s department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and collaborates with UCLA’s La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science, part of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability(IoES). Through the partnership between UCLA and NPS, he focuses on the conservation of species from mountain lions to endangered red-legged frogs.

David Szymanski, Superintendent of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service, said the idea of a crossing came to him in October 2014, when they had to pick up a mountain lion that had been killed on the 101.

Finding a way to get the animals back and forth is a good idea. It’s a big aspiration but, I thought, why don’t we start planning for the best option. We worked with Caltrans, then Walter Annenberg saw us on TV and offered to put up a million-dollar challenge grant.”

The topic turned to money: “Has money been allocated? How much? What about accounting? Transparency of the money trail is important. Was there a bid process (to Caltrans)?”

Caltrans released its Project Study Report in 2015 that determined “the project was feasible and the cost would be in the neighborhood of $30 million.” At this point, two years later, it could be as much as $50 million.

Szymanski referred to former Senator Fran Pavley, who recommended not to use public funding because it might compete with other transportation needs as development growth proceeds.

“Will we get public money,” Lamorie asked.

So far, private funding, in addition to the Annenberg challenge grant, has been lean. A $650,000 grant from the California Wildlife Conservation Board was awarded to the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains in 2014 for the design of the crossing and, in 2015, a $1 million grant from the California Coastal Commission was awarded to

Caltrans for the environmental assessment report. The National Wildlife Federation and the Santa Monica Mountains Fund are currently appealing for funds for the construction phase of the project.

In a recent announcement of its latest environmental grants, the Leonard DiCaprio Foundation has allocated $1,436,750 million to its California Program, with NWF being one of nine recipients for the wildlife corridor.

“It’s hard to fundraise if you don’t have a shovel-ready project and the compliance isn’t done,” Szymanski said.

As the conversation continued, the subject changed to tunnels: “Why not have a tunnel instead of an overpass? There are tunnels all over the place.”

“We looked at tunnels,” said Sheik Mounuddin, Caltrans project manager.

“Everything has been considered to date,” Szymanski said. “We can share our research with you and if you see a stone we haven’t turned over, let us know.”

“What if it were just a wildlife crossing and no recreation,” someone asked.

Lamorie asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to keep the overcrossing completely wild and practically the whole room raised their hands.

“With recreation, it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t. How do you allow animals to get through and not people,’ Susan Nissman said. “There are unintended consequences if you take away recreation.”

“As one of four agencies that manages 4,000 to 5,000 miles of trails,” Szymanski offered, adding, “In the spirit of transparency, anything we do to keep people off that crossing will keep wildlife off, too. It’s a losing battle when people want to go someplace.”

“We have to stay focused on how we are going to get it done,” Lamorie said. “I don’t want to be standing here 20 years from now doing the same thing.”

Szymanski thanked everyone for their input and, especially, he said, “Thanks to all the work you have done over 50 years, we still have wildlife.”

 

Flavia Potenza
Flavia Potenza

Flavia Potenza is executive editor of the Messenger Mountain News. She is also a founding member of the 40-year old Topanga Messenger that closed its doors in 2016. She can be reached at editor@messengermountainnews.com

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