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'Save L.A. Cougars' campaign calls for Agoura Hills wildlife crossing

'Save L.A. Cougars' campaign calls for Agoura Hills wildlife crossing
P-22, a mountain lion that managed to cross two L.A. freeways to get to Griffith Park, has raised awareness of challenges that animals in urban environments face, activists say. (National Park Service)

With the Griffith Park mountain lion as their poster puma, the National Wildlife Federation and the Santa Monica Mountains Fund have joined forces to raise money for a wildlife crossing at the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills.

The "Save L.A. Cougars" campaign will kick off Friday at a public rally featuring legislators and schoolchildren at the site of the proposed crossing near Liberty Canyon Road, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

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The crossing, long on the wish list of scientists and transportation officials, would link protected habitat on either side of the freeway to give cougars, bobcats and other wildlife safe passage through the dense urban landscape to find food and mates.

P-22, the celebrity cougar celebrated for having traversed two Los Angeles freeways to find his own turf, "has become a great symbol of this nationwide issue," said Beth Pratt, California director of the National Wildlife Federation.

Pratt said the attention P-22 has gotten — including the astonishing National Geographic image by Steve Winter featuring the cougar with the Hollywood sign as backdrop — has raised awareness of the challenges facing mountain lions, bobcats and other animals struggling to survive in urban environments. P-22 so impressed Pratt that she got a tattoo of his face and the Hollywood sign on her upper left arm.

"We're trying to reinspire people to fund conservation projects," said Collin O'Mara, the federation's president and chief executive. Federal funding will probably be needed to build the crossing, he said, "and we want to show there's strong public and political support."

The Santa Monica Mountains Fund, founded in 1988, is the nonprofit partner of the 153,000-acre Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service. The fund spends as much as $35,000 a year to support a long-term National Park Service mountain lion study in the area, said Executive Director Art Eck.

The two groups will work together to support that research and to secure public and private funding for the design of the Liberty Canyon crossing. The National Wildlife Federation, with millions of supporters, has a broad reach.

The California Department of Transportation has tried three times for federal funding for a $10-million crossing near the Liberty Canyon exit. The area is part of a critical wildlife corridor that connects the Santa Susana Mountains and Simi Hills to the Santa Monica Mountains.

"We're happy to have more support for this important project," said Lauren Wonder, a Caltrans spokeswoman. She said $3 million would be needed to cover the costs of research and design.

"Ultimately," she added, "the coalition will need anywhere from $10 million to $30 million to construct it."

After initially considering a tunnel, wildlife proponents are now lobbying for a landscaped crossing over the freeway, like those that have been successful in Canada and Europe and are starting to be used in the Western U.S.

The groups have lined up a broad group of supporters, including city and county officials, state agencies and homeowners associations. Pratt said one goal is "to be shovel-ready by 2018."

As for P-22, who scientists say might soon need to go on the prowl for a mate and a habitat larger than Griffith Park, Pratt said: "The crossing is not going to help him.… He shouldn't be there. He's got nowhere to go."

Twitter: @MarthaGroves

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