It's not every day that an architect tries to think like a mountain lion.
Clark Stevens, an architect and executive officer at the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, had to do just that to design the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing, which will cross the U.S. Highway 101 in Agoura Hills.
Beth Pratt, the director of the California chapter of the National Wildlife Federation, said, "What's really powerful is reconnecting an ecosystem… [this is] just a huge visionary thing for L.A. to do."
Most important to the designers on the project is understanding how the animals move around. Pratt said planners have used over 70,000 GPS data points from tracked mountain lions, which show they continually come right up to the 101 Freeway only to turn around. The information was gathered by biologists from trackers on more than 30 mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains, where the National Park Service has been tracking the cats since 2002.
The freeway crossing project is unique in scope and price tag. At 165 feet wide and 200 feet long, the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing will be the first of its kind in California and perhaps the largest wildlife crossing in an urban area in the world. The $50 million to $60 million needed to complete the project will be raised by the NWF, though it hasn't been raised yet.
Pratt is optimistic that the goal will be reached, but the funds aren't the only hurdle to jump.
"Most of these [crossings] are built in very remote settings," Pratt said. "[But] this is an engineering nightmare. Unlike those rural areas, where you have your pick… we only have one place to put it."
Because of a lack of undeveloped public land along both sides of the freeway, the crossing needs to be designed to fit this particular spot, immediately west of Liberty Canyon Road at mile marker 33. Most wildlife crossings are designed first and then fit into a rural space that can accommodate.
"We have a challenging location," Stevens said. "What's great about it is it still exists, and that's about all that's great about this spot."
When the freeway was initially constructed, part of the hill had to be removed. Stevens and his team are essentially replacing that part of the hill.
"We want to do it in such a way that animals coming from the south moving north don't lose their line of site of habitat beyond," Stevens said. Once an animal reaches signs of urban development, they are likely to turn around.
Pratt echoes the sentiment that continual green space is key to wildlife movement. "They gravitate towards green space," she said. When a crossing was built in Colorado, deer began using it right away. "I think we'll see the same thing as Colorado, this thing goes up and BAM."
Right now, the 101 Freeway disrupts the native animals of the Santa Monica Mountains, creating what are often called "conservation islands." When species are separated from one another, they are unable to find genetically diverse mates. Like old English royalty who refused to marry outside their bloodline and developed hemophilia, a less diverse gene pool means a weak population.
The crossing will help more than mountain lions, which are the least genetically diverse group in the country other than panthers in Florida. Prey, like deer, and smaller animals like salamanders and birds will also benefit.
Genetic diversity refers to the total number of traits in the genetic makeup of a species. The more diverse a species, the higher its ability to adapt to a changing environment, which increases its chance to survive.
"If we don't start opening up our human spaces to wildlife, they're not going to have a future," Pratt said.
Reach Staff Reporter Ashley Boucher here.