Wildlife Advocates Launch Campaign to Save Cougars

More than 300 people rallied together near Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills on Friday with a mission — and a hashtag — to protect Southern California’s mountain lions.

“We need to speak for wildlife because they can’t speak for themselves,” said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “We’re creating a model that can be replicated in other parts of the country… This isn’t just an LA story. This is very much a national story.”

State, city and local representatives joined with concerned citizens, activists and fourth-grade students from Woodlake Elementary to show support for a new campaign deemed “#saveLAcougars.” The cause advocates for building a $10-million wildlife crossing that could connect animal habitats divided from freeway developments and population growth, enabling genetic diversity for a dwindling mountain lion population. 

The wildlife overpass is still waiting approval from Caltrans and privately funded grants. While fencing and revegetation projects could begin as early as this year, a wildlife overpass won’t be likely until 2018.

In addition to helping preserve the species, advocates hope the nature overpass could help other animals access green areas needed to survive as well as serve as a community path for bikers, hikers and equestrians.

The Santa Monica Mountains contain less than 10 mountain lions, according to expert estimates, which has led to extremely low genetic diversity and inbreeding.

Skeptics of the project have doubted whether or not an animal would know to use the crossing or what kind of crossing to even build.

“It’s all based on years of research,” said Kate Kuykendall, public affairs officer for National Park Service (NPS). “I don’t think anybody can make any guarantees for sure. We’re going to put the best science behind determining what kind of crossing, where it should go, what kind of cues to give animals.” 

Environmentalists believe the rural landscape and smaller populations near Malibu Canyon and Agoura roads serves as the easiest access point for animals to cross the freeway into new territories. Plans for small modifications and clean-up projects near the freeways may further help the animals cross streets without harming animals or people.

“The main thing that’s occurring is, this whole fencing is coming out and we’re going to revegetate. When the animals get across, they’ll get back toward the natural area to the left,” Seth Riley, an expert with NPS, said. 

Projects to move fencing and revegetate the area near the Liberty Canyon exits on the U.S. 101 Highway could begin within the next few months, according to Riley. Soon after, activists hope plans for the wildlife crossing will go into effect.

The wildlife crossing seems to have gained traction with many local elected officials, who showed their support on Friday.

State Sen. Fran Pavley noted that 30 years ago, developers had slated the land to be 400 apartment buildings and a carpet store.

“There’s been a lot of good work done behind the scenes. We’ve made some critical planning decisions in this area to help in making sure that this becomes a wildlife corridor for the wildlife and enjoyment of others,” Pavley said. “This could be the longest wildlife corridor in the nation with the help of Caltrans.” 

Malibu City Councilman Lou La Monte stood with the children from Woodlake Elementary when he said, “A wildlife crossing in the most populous county in the United States would send a message to the world that wild things are welcome everywhere.”

Linda Parks, chair of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC), said the groups involved have already received a $250,000 grant toward the wildlife overpass.

Barbara Marques, Senior Environmental Planner with Caltrans has been working alongside NPS and SMMC for about 10 years now, studying ways to better accommodate the changing climate of development.

In addition to implementing fencing projects on other freeways, a local tunnel project has seen positive wildlife responses and Marques hopes Caltrans can mirror that with the Liberty Canyon crossing.

“We’re going to be implementing some fencing here immediately in the next few months to enhance wildlife connectivity. We’re looking forward to working with our partner agencies on this important project. Maybe the next time we all get together, we’ll be at the groundbreaking for this project.”

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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