TEMECULA, Calif. (CN) — A key section of a natural corridor for endangered Santa Ana mountain lions and other wildlife that migrate between the California coast and inland environments received permanent protection under a conservation plan finalized Monday.
The now-protected 55-acre parcel of the corridor would have been blocked by a planned massive housing development in Riverside County called the Altair Project.
In 2018, conservation group the Center for Biological Diversity and others sued Altair developer Ambient Communities and the Riverside County city of Temecula to block the project.
The 5 million-square-foot development lacked a comprehensive environmental impact assessment and proposed protecting a pocket of land that was too small for wildlife to migrate across in order to thrive, conservationists said in their lawsuit.
Decades of unabated development of residential and commercial structures encroached on mountain lions’ habitat and eroded their ability to breed with other groups, resulting in dangerously low genetic diversity, the complaint said.
A 2019 study by the National Park Service and University of California researchers found that if inbreeding continued, both the Santa Ana and Santa Monica mountain lion groups could go extinct in under 15 years.
This past March, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia blocked the proposed 270-acre development, finding it would imperil the endangered mountain lion population.
Ottolia found that Ambient Communities failed to properly study the impact Altair would have on the environment and that its designs violated Temecula’s own habitat preservation plan.
But in order to resolve the claims, both parties continued with settlement negotiations begun before Ottolia’s ruling.
Under a settlement reached by the parties Monday, Ambient Communities will redesign its plan to minimize impacts on mountain lions, western pond turtles and other wildlife.
Part of the minimization of harm includes a ban on the residential use of anticoagulant rodenticides within the Altair Project because the poison has led to mountain lion deaths.
The developer must also acquire other land now and in the future that both connect wildlife migratory areas and can be used for educational purposes, according to the settlement.
Temecula will develop training for law enforcement and the city’s animal control program to ensure that mountain lions are protected.
As part of the agreement, conservation groups will dismiss their legal challenge to the Altair Project and bear their own costs for attorney fees.
Center for Biological Diversity attorney John P. Rose said in a statement Monday the agreement gives the mountain lion population a much-needed lifeline.
“This agreement gives Santa Ana’s imperiled mountain lions a pathway to recovery,” Rose said. “Poorly planned highways and development have hemmed this population in, and these beautiful big cats are being driven toward extinction.”
Pam Nelson of the Sierra Club, a party to the agreement, said the health of local mountain lions is closely tied to the well-being of other wildlife.
“We thank the city of Temecula and Ambient in helping us keep the parcels next to the headwaters of the Santa Margarita River intact, thus avoiding an impact that would have almost certainly ensured the extinction of the Santa Ana lions,” Nelson said.
Temecula city manager Aaron Adams said in an emailed statement the city is pleased with the update to the 1,750-unit project.
“Not only does the Altair provide for much needed roadway improvements and housing units, it now includes additional protections for the mountain lion beyond what the developer had previously proposed,” Adams said. “The city is satisfied that the settlement agreement is complete and the project is free to move forward under the previously approved the specific plan.”
State officials are currently studying whether to grant Santa Ana mountain lions and five other cougar populations permanent protections under the California Endangered Species Act.
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