By Gabriela Worrel
On January 14, Laguna Greenbelt, Inc. attended the first public scoping meeting presenting the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing in Los Angeles County. It was an inspirational event, and it became clear by the end that there was a lot of love in the room for wildlife and open space from local residents, political leaders, and community organizations. About 300 people joined Caltrans at the King Gillette Ranch on January 14, 2016 to hear the agency’s proposal for a green bridge over Highway 101 in Agoura Hills at Liberty Canyon Rd. The agency presented three options: one involving no action, one involving a bridge over the freeway only, and one involving a bridge extending over the freeway and Agoura Rd. The bridge would be a vital linkage between two important large ecosystems in the Santa Monica Mountains and the Santa Susana Mountains. The project is expected to cost $55 million. The National Wildlife Federation has committed to raising the necessary funds through private donations and public funds already slated for conservation projects like this one. The crowd seemed to overwhelmingly support the project, and not one person voiced opposition to the project during the public comment period – a rare occurrence indeed.
Both bridge options include the presence of a recreational trail on the bridge – one that would connect hiking trails on either side of the freeway and undoubtedly delight local outdoorsman, for good reason; What nature-loving trekker wouldn’t want to be able to cross over the 101 in search of more nature? This being said, Laguna Greenbelt supports the building of this project, and strongly urges Caltrans to carefully consider the impact of humans and domestic animals such as dogs and horses on the movement of wildlife across the bridge. Some studies done in our region have shown that even intermittent presence of humans and animals can discourage the presence of key predator species (*note references in footnote?). This may potentially undermine the success of animals using the bridge – we will ask Caltrans in our comments to bring in experts (to comment) on this issue during the next phase of the project.
The impetus for the overpass has been a desire to prevent animal mortality on local highways and genetic inbreeding in mountain lions living in the region. Caltrans reports that: “The purpose of the proposed project is to provide a safe and sustainable wildlife passage across the freeway in order to help create an important linkage in the region. The crossing would help reduce wildlife mortality, ease animal movement across habitats, and allow for the exchange of genetic material.” The location was selected for a variety of reasons, including the presence of protected open space on both sides that is not at risk for development, and past attempts by animals to cross the freeway at this point.
Studies conducted by public agencies over the past two decades have shown that mountain lions, which live solitary lives and typically need large ranges to roam and find new mates, are blocked from movement by highway 101. As a result, they are particularly at risk for problems resulting from competition for space among young cougars, and genetic inbreeding. Seth Riley, a head biologist for the National Park Service and consultant on the project, noted that already, genetic analyses have shown decreases in genetic variability in the population adjacent to the freeway. While the main target is mountain lions, the bridge will also benefit other species, such as the Western Fence Lizard, skinks, and a bird called the wrentit, among others.
The next step for the project is for Caltrans to gather public comments and produce an Environmental Document. Public comments may be submitted through January 29, 2016 at email@example.com, or mail a letter to Barbara Marquez, Senior Planner (click on Caltrans link below for the address). The agency expects to show the project will have no negative environmental impacts, thus avoiding the need to complete an Environmental Impact Report.
Laguna Greenbelt, Inc. is currently working to see the completion of the Coast to Cleveland Wildlife Corridor in Irvine, California, and while the Liberty Canyon Crossing is in the neighboring county, wildlife connectivity is a regional issue – not just a local one – especially when we know that many animals have large ranges and need to move between distant ecosystems to thrive. This crossing would be an exciting development for wildlife in southern California in order to maintain the genetic diversity in the Orange County coastal wild lands, the Santa Ana Mountains, and beyond.
For more information on the project, visit Caltran’s web page: http://dot.ca.gov/dist07/travel/projects/libertycanyon/. Follow the campaign and donate to the building of the project, dubbed #SaveLaCougars, at http://www.savelacougars.org.
*Gabriela Worrel is an outreach coordinator at Laguna Greenbelt, Inc.