To help cougars cross busy 101 Freeway, Annenberg Foundation promises to match donations for bridge

Building a cougar crossing over one of Southern California’s busiest freeways will cost tens of millions of dollars — funding that is unlikely to come any time soon from the state’s transportation kitty.

So advocates have launched a campaign to raise private donations for a span over the 10-lane 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills that would provide safe passage to mountain lions and other wildlife moving between the Santa Monica Mountains and inland habitat.

The effort got a jump-start from the Annenberg Foundation on Wednesday when the philanthropy announced a challenge grant that will match every dollar, up to $1 million total, donated by other foundations.

Although best known for its education and arts funding, the foundation has supported animal-protection causes around the world and views the wildlife crossing as a way to improve the overall ecosystem, said foundation Executive Director Cinny Kennard.

The roughly 15 mountain lions that live in the Santa Monica range desperately need new blood. Isolated by freeways and urban development, adults are breeding with close relatives and losing the genetic diversity necessary for population survival.

A recent study by UCLA and National Park Service scientists concluded that the inbreeding leaves the local cougar population at risk of extinction within the next 50 years.

“It’s easy to think of Los Angeles as a concrete jungle. The truth is, we’re home to one of the most richly diverse ecosystems in the entire world,” Annenberg President Wallis Annenberg said in a statement. “We need to do more to protect our mountain lion population, to help them breed and thrive.”

A 2015 Caltrans report presented two alternatives for the 101 crossing, which would rise immediately west of Liberty Canyon Road.

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A bridge that’s 165 feet wide and 200 feet long would cost $30 million to $35 million. A longer span over the freeway and Agoura Road —  the choice of wildlife advocates — would cost $50 million to $60 million.

“This is a capital campaign, just like a hospital,” said Molly Judge, the West Coast philanthropy director for the National Wildlife Federation, which is helping spearhead the drive for public and private funding.

Given California’s highway construction backlog, Judge said proponents are seeking state conservation money, rather than transportation funds. Last year, they obtained a $1-million grant from the California State Coastal Conservancy.

Backers want to raise $10 million from public and private sources by the end of next year to advance the project, which they hope to build by 2021.

The crossing would not help Southern California’s most celebrated mountain lion, P-22, who took up residency in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park after managing to cross not only the 101 Freeway but the 405 Freeway as well.

“What he’s accomplished is pretty powerful,” Judge said. “He’s become a figurehead for the movement to coexist with wildlife and to protect habitat.”

To call attention to the bridge initiative, which is part of the federation’s #SaveLACougars campaign, a team of advocates, scientists and government officials on Wednesday are beginning a four-day, 40-mile walk that will retrace P-22’s likely journey from the Santa Monicas to Griffith Park. The starting point is the site of the proposed cougar crossing.

bettina.boxall@latimes.com

Twitter: @boxall

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