(CN) — A large group of lawmakers, environmentalists and traffic engineers gathered Friday alongside Liberty Canyon Road in the city of Agoura Hills to celebrate the start of construction on the world’s largest wildlife crossing.
The Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing will create a bridge strictly for wildlife that will span over Highway 101 and provide a vital link between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Sierra Madre Range.
“This is not just a Los Angeles story, not just a California story, this is a story for the whole world,” said Beth Pratt, regional director of the National Wildlife Refuge.
Platt is a familiar figure in Los Angeles. Several of the speakers at Friday morning's groundbreaking ceremony recalled Pratt’s tireless work in advocating on behalf of wildlife in the greater Los Angeles area, particularly the Santa Monica Mountains.
“I remember Beth Pratt arriving to an elementary school on a horse with a mountain lion tracker in tow and all the students gathering around her,” recalled one speaker.
Mountain lions are the last remaining large carnivore in the Los Angeles region, where development and urban cityscapes predominate. Los Angeles is one of only two cities in the world – the other being Mumbai – that hosts a large cat species within its environs.
About 100 mountain lions prowl the mountains that begin in the Hollywood Hills to the south and extend about 40 miles to Ventura County in the north. The population is relatively stable but long-term concerns remain, as habitat fragmentation, caused primarily by the proliferation of LA’s famed busy highway, persists in the area.
"The Santa Monica Mountains population, along with the one in the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County, has the lowest genetic diversity documented for mountain lions aside from Florida panthers," said John Benson, a wildlife ecologist with the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science at UCLA, in a recent study.
So Pratt and many other conservation-minded people and organizations in the Los Angeles area began formulating solutions to the problem and came up with the idea to build a bridge over the 10-lane section of Highway 101, known locally as the Hollywood/Ventura Highway.
The highway presents a formidable barrier for mountain lions and other species of mammals who live in the area, including coyote, gray fox, bobcat and mule deer. But with the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing – an $85 million project funded in part by the federal government, the state government and a substantial philanthropic gift from Wallis Annenberg, president of the Annenberg Foundation – the animals can cross safely.
“We are going to reconnect the land and living creatures that should have never been fractured in the first place,” Annenberg said.
The wildlife corridor will foment more genetic diversity within the populations in the Santa Monica Mountains, with the goal of connecting that population to the distinct population in the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County, where a different group of mountain lions struggles with the same inbreeding issues.
The expansion of territory will also help the population increase as mountain lions like to establish dominance over territory, sometimes as large as 200 square miles.
California Governor Gavin Newsom was on hand for the groundbreaking ceremony and said the event was a reminder of the power of cooperation between the public, private and nonprofit sectors as well as an example of how state, local and federal agencies can cooperate to effect important projects.
“I am so confused because the audience applauded CalTrans today,” Newsom joked. “Did you guys capture that on film?”
But CalTrans Acting Director Steven Keck did garner applause as he signaled the agency’s desire to build more projects up and down the state as long as the funding is there.
“Let’s hope this is the first of many to come as we continue to add sustainability to our transportation system,” Keck said.
Newsom said he has appropriated about $50 million for wildlife corridors in California and it will be included in his upcoming budget proposal to the legislature slated for May.
But given the reception he got at the ceremony, he might want to allocate more.
“In the last two years I don’t think I have been somewhere where everyone is so happy,” the governor said, referring to the many pandemic-related protests, tense press conferences and a recall effort.
“We are going to seek to replicate these projects up and down the state,” he said.
But for Pratt, the focus is on the inspiration the project can provide to others throughout the country and the world, but itis also meant to help rescue the foundering population of mountain lions in her backyard.
“We are not going to let this mountain lion population go extinct on our watch,” she said.
U.S. Senator Alex Padilla also spoke at the event, which was attended by many local and state lawmakers as well as several luminaries from the local environmental community.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.