Land Secured for Wildlife Corridor Across 101 Freeway

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Rendering of a proposed wildlife corridor over the 101 Freeway

The dream of building a wildlife corridor that will connect the Santa Monica Mountains to the Simi Hills is now one step closer to becoming a reality. With the recent purchase of 71 acres known as Chesebro Meadow in Agoura Hills, the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority can now move forward with its years-long plan to help save mountain lions and other local wildlife at risk.

The overcrossing that could be constructed as soon as 2018 would be built over the Ventura (101) Freeway at Liberty Canyon. This area was identified by experts from the National Park Service to be a critical corridor for wildlife, especially mountain lions, to access and broaden their range and habitats. In the past decade alone, at least a dozen mountain lions have been struck and killed while trying to cross the 101 Freeway near that location with only three of those killed being previously monitored with a GPS collar by the National Park Service. It’s also one of the last areas where such a corridor can be preserved, considering the development in the area. Animal advocates say if mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains — sequestered by freeways and building developments — can have access across highway 101, this could enable genetic diversity to their dwindling population.

A mix of private and public money has been used so far to pay for the project that could end up costing in excess of $50 million. The latest acquisition in land purchased cost $7 million. It was bought by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) from a private owner. At a ceremony last week to celebrate the purchase of the land, it was renamed in honor of state senator Fran Pavley  (Fran Pavley Meadow)who has been a longtime supporter of the project. Pavley helped the MRCA secure public funding, getting $3.35 million from the California Wildlife Conservation Board through Proposition 50 funds, $1.1 million from Los Angeles County supervisor Sheila Kuehl and $2.55 million from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Proposition 1 appropriation. Just purchasing the land alone took years of negotiations and was complicated according to Dash Stolarz, the public relations director of the MRCA. Developers had been eyeing the property for years hoping to build hotels, homes and even a jail. The new land purchase doubles the size of the area to be designated for the wildlife corridor and will actually be the first of its kind in the area.

Plans call for an overcrossing to be constructed over the eight-lane freeway at Liberty Canyon. It would consist of a 165-foot-wide by 200-foot-long bridge spanning the busy thoroughfare with columns on spread footings in the median and retaining walls on either end. Since the newly acquired 71 acres is covered in chaparral, coastal sagebrush, grass and oak woodland-savannah vegetation, the bridge will be landscaped with the same natural, native vegetation and drought-tolerant plants to support the passage of wildlife from one side of the freeway to the other. Also, to facilitate effective crossings, designers hope to reduce traffic noise and block bright unnatural light. Animal experts say this is the best effort for Santa Monica mountain cougars or pumas, which have become increasingly genetically isolated due to inbreeding without access to wild lands, to survive. 

Los Angeles is one of only two large cities on earth with large carnivores living within city limits — the other is Mumbai. In recent years, the National Park Service has tracked roughly 50 big cats in the Santa Monica Mountains — many near Malibu — but there are likely far fewer now. With an increasingly fragmented and urbanized landscape, they hope to gain information on the cats’ behavior and travel using GPS collars. 

Ultimately, keeping the species from extinction and then thriving by expanding their breeding grounds and habitats is the goal of the MRCA and other supporters of the project, despite sky-high costs. The crossing could even protect humans, as Pavley has been quoted saying, “It’s critically important to provide a safe crossing over the busy 101 Freeway for wildlife. A secure pathway also is essential to protect motorists who could be killed or injured by collisions with animals.”