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Bridge will give wildlife, like big cats, a “roaming” chance to survive and thrive

Bridge will give wildlife, like big cats, a “roaming” chance to survive and thrive

He never gained the notoriety and fame of P-22, but this unnamed big cat was a driving force behind the world’s largest wildlife crossing — the size of a football field — being built over 10 lanes of the 101 Ventura Freeway at Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills right now.

Nobody gave much thought to wildlife in the 1960s when the freeway was extended north, effectively cutting off the passageway east and west to Pacific Coast Highway for mountain lions, bobcats, foxes, and all wildlife that had roamed the land freely for centuries.

Los Angeles was expanding. We needed to move cars, not wildlife. If mountain lions were forced to fight among themselves to survive in a limited space, and they had to inbreed because they could not mate with their species on the other side of the freeway, so be it.

It was a small price to pay to keep traffic moving on California’s longest freeway where today more than 300,000 cars a day pass by the wildlife crossing construction site at Liberty Canyon.

Maybe that’s what we should name the forgotten mountain lion that spurred this crossing. Liberty. He was certainly looking for it when he made a break in 2013.

“He had made it all the way across the freeway, but when he got to the other side he couldn’t get up the steep walls that Caltrans had built between Agoura Road and the freeway,” said former California state Senator Fran Pavley.

“So, he turned around to go back and got hit by a car and was killed. That was like a wake-up call. I had a meeting in my district office and invited the local superintendent of national parks, the head of Caltrans in the Los Angeles area, and other government officials all in one room.

“What should we do, I asked them? That’s where it all started. What should we do?”

If construction keeps on schedule, the $90 million answer will open in 2025. Wildlife on both sides of the 101 Freeway will be reunited on land that stretches from the 118 Freeway to the 101 to Pacific Coast Highway.

Cars travel southbound on the 101 Freeway under the under construction Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing in Agoura Hills on Friday, May 3, 2024. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Cars travel southbound on the 101 Freeway under the under construction Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing in Agoura Hills on Friday, May 3, 2024. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

There’s plenty of credit to go around for this.

The Annenberg Foundation wrote a $25 million check, along with millions more from voter-approved bonds and private donors.

The Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy played a major role by purchasing the land to keep it open space.

The National Park Service, Caltrans and the National Wildlife Federation were all core partners.

A sign for the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing in Agoura Hills on Friday, May 3, 2024. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
A sign for the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing in Agoura Hills on Friday, May 3, 2024. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Pavley is quick to give them and others all the credit, but if it wasn’t for this former 8th-grade American history school teacher living within a stone’s throw of the crossing, it’s highly doubtful any of this would have happened.

After teaching middle school for 25 years, Pavley was already battle hardened when she got to Sacramento in 2000 as state assemblywoman for the 41st District.

“My predecessor, Sheila Kuehl, gave me some good advice. She said pick two or three things you are passionate about, stick with them, and make a difference,” said Pavley, who authored a landmark vehicle emissions bill and many other environmental impact bills while in office.

“Clean energy, clean air, clean water. I stayed in my lane.”

And now her lane is seeing the wildlife corridor become a reality. She was term-limited out of office in 2016, but there’s no term limits on passion and making a difference.

Girders sit on trucks on the Liberty Canyon on ramp to the northbound 101 Freeway for the night construction on the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing in Agoura Hills on Friday, May 3, 2024. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Girders sit on trucks on the Liberty Canyon on ramp to the northbound 101 Freeway for the night construction on the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing in Agoura Hills on Friday, May 3, 2024. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

She’s heard all the questions and criticisms about cost and the safety of the residents of Liberty Canyon if a mountain lion or bobcat strayed off the path into the surrounding neighborhoods, which they did often during the drought.

Biologists have assured her, as best they could, that the crossing may actually bring less wildlife to the neighborhood, not more.

That all that freedom they’ve been eyeing from the other side of the freeway for so many years will beckon them to continue their journey to PCH, and reunite with their own.

Without Pavley leading the way as mayor of Agoura Hills when the city was incorporated in 1982, there would be no open space to cross.

Plans called for a medium security prison to be built, boulevards to cut through mountains, thousands more homes and condos added, and an office complex or shopping center at just about every major intersection.

None of it got by Pavley and the other inaugural city council members, who stayed in their lane, too. People weren’t moving west to Liberty Canyon for more concrete and cars.

“Oil companies and development companies have spent a lot of money against me over the years, more than a million dollars, but the people I represented didn’t care if I was a Democrat or a Republican,” she said.

“Open space, good public schools, and public safety are not party issues.”

What should we do? Fran Pavley asked 14 years ago after Liberty was killed crossing the freeway.

Giving our wildlife their freedom back is a good beginning.

 

Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at dmccarthynews@gmail.com.

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