Save the Cougars plans a bridge to genetic diversity.
In just a few years, commuters may see mountain lions strolling over a 10-lane freeway in Los Angeles. A team of public and private organizations has been making progress on getting funding and approval for a massive bridge in Liberty Canyon that will allow wildlife to cross between isolated areas on either side of the 101 Freeway. Beth Pratt, founder of the advocacy group #SaveLACougars and California Director for the National Wildlife Federation, estimates that the bridge will be completed by the end of 2024 or the beginning of 2025. “The number one threat to wildlife worldwide is loss of habitat,” Pratt says. “So if we don’t start opening up our human spaces to wildlife they’re not going to have much of a future.”
Conservation has long focused on reserved areas for wildlife. But it was not until recently that conservationists turned their attention to problems of prohibited movement and genetic isolation. In Liberty Canyon, mountain lions and other wildlife face danger when trying to cross the freeway to get to the other side. But if they stay on their “island,” with time the population will lack the genetic diversity needed to remain healthy.
The mountain lion population in the Liberty Canyon area is heavily monitored. And, much to Pratt’s alarm, they are starting to show birth defects. “They’re holding on,” Pratt says. “We think we’re still on track to get the solution in place before they’re gone.” The problem of genetic isolation extends to other wildlife, such as coyotes, gopher snakes, and desert cottontails, and the crossing will offer a solution to them as well.
The Liberty Canyon project was inspired by one mountain lion in particular, known by the name P-22, that ventured across the bustling 101 and 405 freeways to Griffith Park back in 2012. The harrowing journey of P-22 brought attention to the project and got people on board. “P-22 himself was our biggest asset,” Pratt says. “You’ve got a mountain lion who is the poster child for this, who crosses freeways and is living under the Hollywood Sign. Science is going to dictate how we solve it, but how we get it funded and completed — that’s public will.”
For those who want to get involved, Pratt suggests donating or signing up for email newsletters from #SaveLACougars to be notified of volunteer opportunities. She also underscores the importance of supporting other wildlife crossings.
A number of public and private organizations, including Caltrans, the National Park Service, and the National Wildlife Federation, have banded together to make this project happen. The hope is that bridging wildlife islands won’t end here. “We’re already seeing crossings get more attention because of the attention Liberty Canyon has gotten,” says Pratt. As of July 2021, the state of California allocated $7 million to the Liberty Canyon crossing and $54.5 million to similar projects.