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Yielding to Four-Legged Traffic

Times Staff Writer

It was a twist on the slogan “Your highway dollars at work.”

While cars swamped the Riverside Freeway, Caltrans on Tuesday turned its attention to a different kind of traffic -- the deer, bobcats and foxes that wander the state parkland on both sides of the highway.

California Department of Transportation crews are tearing up the Coal Canyon Road offramp in Anaheim to replace it with a wildlife corridor that cuts under the freeway. The pathway will allow wildlife to migrate between Coal Canyon and Chino Hills State Park, open space now divided by traffic lanes.

The wildlife corridor is considered the last viable crossing between the parcels and is crucial for preserving a wide array of animal life and vegetation, said Geary Hund, a resource ecologist with the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

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Environmentalists consider the parkland one of the top 25 sensitive “hot spots” in the world because of the number of endangered species of wildlife and vegetation.

“This place is as diverse as the Amazon forest,” Hund said. “We have an exceptional number of species and a great extinction risk.”

But until the parks department bought property that had been slated for development -- first a 1,400-acre parcel north of the freeway in 2000 for $40 million and a 32-acre parcel south of the freeway for $13.5 million six months later -- much of the wildlife was cut off from one side of the range, limiting access to food and mates.

“We bought Coal Canyon two years ago to protect one of the last remaining wildlife corridors,” said Ruth Coleman, acting director of the parks department.

Indeed, said Claire Schlotterbeck, an environmentalist hired by the Wildlands Conservancy in 1995 to help find funds to buy the then-private property in the middle of the state park, the project took flight once the state was convinced of how important the concept of “linkage” was.

“Other groups still don’t understand it,” she said. “They pay it lip service, but no other agency has bought into it, committed to it like state parks.”

Without linkage, the habitat would be fragmented “into useless, pathetic remnants.”

“We learned that if Coal Canyon was developed, there would be no way for wildlife to get into Chino Hills,” she said. “They would be surrounded by a sea or urbanization and over time they would die out.”

For example, she said, if the park’s mountain lion population declined from inbreeding, it would lead to a population explosion among their natural prey, including opossums, raccoons and skunks.

These animals prey on birds’ eggs, so their population growth would reduce the avian population.

The corridor, which Caltrans hopes to complete by late March, is considered an improvement on the narrow, dark tunnels -- essentially water culverts -- developed several years ago that environmentalists had hoped would give wildlife a way to cross under the freeway.

Unfortunately, Schlotterbeck said, the tunnels fell short because some animals shied from them.

“The cougar would use it, but he’s not afraid of anything,” she said.

“But the deer needs something that’s tall and where they can see the horizon,” since a dark tunnel may hide a hungry mountain lion.

She said the higher and wider corridor will “help the prey more than the predator” because it gives them a clearer view of the landscape.

The corridor also highlights an unusual partnership between the state parks department and Caltrans, which has “never removed an interchange and converted it to a wildlife corridor,” said Tony Harris, chief deputy director of the state transit agency.

Caltrans will spend about $440,000 on the project.

“There are ways to enhance the environment, such as wildlife crossings, and we’re looking to do more across the state,” Harris said.


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