Improved Liberty Canyon underpass will help cougar survival
Source of this article: The Thousand Oaks Acorn, December 4, 2014
The big cats living in the local mountains will have more room to roam now that the initial funding for a more than $1-million freeway underpass in Agoura Hills has been approved.
Environmentalists hope the new passage at Liberty Canyon will allow mountain lions, also known as cougars and pumas, to cross safely under the 101 Freeway and expand their habitat, which is essential for population growth and species survival.
An older, concrete-laden underpass exists at the location, but it’s deemed insufficient for use by larger mammals. Finding it difficult to cross the freeway, cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains are prevented from breeding with other members of their species in the Simi Hills and Los Padres National Forest to the north.
The Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains said it received a $650,000 grant from the California Wildlife Conservation Board to begin construction on the underpass in January. The project is expected to take one year to complete.
In addition, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky provided a $200,000 grant for the wildlife passage, and a private homeowner has agreed to remove a parking lot near Agoura Road and replace it with vegetation more conducive to the crossing.
Caltrans previously contributed $250,000 worth of studies on the area.
After the underpass is completed, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy will monitor activity and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority will provide maintenance.
Clark Stevens, Conservation District executive, said mountain lions that have tried to cross the freeway have been struck by cars.
“They’re stuck here (in the Santa Monicas) because of the freeway,” Stevens said. “The dating scene (for the animals) is a challenge.”
He said the big cats need a larger habitat in order to procreate.
“When male lions get to a certain age, they get kicked out of their group or get killed if they don’t leave,” he said.
Young male mountain lions seeking new territory are usually the ones that attempt the dangerous freeway crossing, Stevens said.
The animals currently benefit from protected open space on both the north and south sides of the freeway. A functional freeway crossing will help connect the two habitats.
According to plans, the existing underpass will be naturalized and habitat will be restored. Obtrusive fencing and lighting will be removed.
Brian Cary of the Wildlife Conservation Board said the freeway had made it almost impossible for wildlife to move between the areas north and south of the 10-lane highway.
“This problem is especially critical for those mountain lions living within the Santa Monica Mountains, where isolation has led to inbreeding,” Cary said.
Stevens said cougars have been seen “nosing around” in the area near Liberty Canyon where the new wildlife corridor will be built.
“They seem to want to cross here,” he said.
Because mountain lions are nocturnal, the crossings are usually at night.
But the existing underpass at Liberty Canyon offers little cover for the animals.
Under the new plan, a 7-acre habitat restoration will turn what is now an open, bare underpass into a “fuzzy hole” in the freeway, Stevens said. “There will be little pavement and a lot of cover.”
Fencing with vegetation will be added in certain sections of the underpass as a means to funnel the cats into the crossing.
“If they want to go north or south this is how they will be guided,” Stevens said.
Cary said tracking data collected by the National Park Service showed that at least one lion has successfully crossed the freeway at Liberty Canyon.
“A second lion was unfortunately struck and killed by a vehicle (while) attempting to cross,” he said. “Not only are animal vehicle collisions bad for wildlife, but these collisions and actions taken by drivers to avoid potential collisions at freeway speeds put the safety of people at risk.”
Agoura Hills Mayor Illece Buckley Weber said her city recently approved a resolution in support of the wildlife crossing, and is in the process of transferring the ownership of an abandoned street between Agoura Road and the 101 Freeway to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority to make the project possible.
City Councilmember Harry Schwarz said he was “thrilled” with the plans “that would aid in curtailing the killing of animals, including mountain lions, who cross our freeways.”
“We need to find appropriate ways to resolve this problem for animals, Councilmember John Edelston said.
Long-range plans include the possible construction of a Liberty Canyon overpass that would provide further ease of crossing for both animals and humans.