It’s a classic L.A. story, with a twist. Our toothy star contends with traffic, paparazzi and frustrated romance. But this bachelor is no reality show contestant. He’s a mountain lion.
The A.P.’s Christopher Weber has the pitch: “Like many urban singles, the mountain lion P-22 lives a solitary life in a too-small habitat. And he has a hard time finding a mate in the big city.”
Add the so-called “Brad Pitt of mountain lions” as a headliner, and California highway officials quickly green-lighted the world’s largest wildlife overpass. The 200-foot-long bridge will span a 10-lane freeway north of Los Angeles, providing safe passage for mountain lions, coyotes, deer, lizards, snakes and other wildlife. The blockbuster project will open by 2023 and is expected to cost $87 million.
Thanks to a fundraising campaign built around the charismatic cat, as much as 80 percent of that money will come from private donations. The lion is the pretty face of an existential threat facing his species: a lack of genetic diversity due to ranges curtailed by development, particularly freeways.
According to an ongoing National Park Service study, the area’s mountain lions have the second-lowest genetic diversity of any U.S. population, behind only the endangered Florida panther. Since 2002, researchers have monitored 50 mountain lions in and around the Santa Monica Mountains. “Our GPS data show many lions pushing up against the edges of freeways and then turning back,” according to an NPS blog. “Those that do continue are rolling the dice. Twelve mountain lions, three from our study, have been struck and killed by vehicles in our study area since research began in 2002,” Zach Behrens wrote in 2015.
“When the freeway went in, it cut off an ecosystem. We’re just now seeing impacts of that,” Beth Pratt of the National Wildlife Federation told The Associated Press. “For those of us in LA, having a romance prospect quashed by traffic is something we can all relate to,” Pratt said.
The overpass will be built in Liberty Canyon, a natural funnel for animals moving inland from the Malibu coast to the Santa Monica Mountains. The route crosses through L.A.’s urban sprawl and isolated pockets of open space. Ironically, the overpass won’t help P-22 escape his current digs, which are about 30 miles east in Griffith Park, a 4,300-acre park just east of Universal Studios. His plight is representative of other California mountain lions in the region whose ranges and romantic opportunities are cut off by roads and freeways.
The span along the 101 Freeway will be the second animal overpass in California and the first near a major metropolis. (Los Angeles is one of only two megacities in the world that have big cats living within the city limits. The other is Mumbai, home to 20 million people and about 21 leopards).
Wildlife overpasses were first introduced in France during the 1950s and are becoming increasingly common around the world. They’re a fixture in Canada’s Banff National Park, and according to Smithsonian magazine, cameras in December recorded animals using a new wildlife bridge over Washington State’s Interstate 90. In October, California’s first wildlife crossing opened near Temecula, north of San Diego.
“We’re sort of setting a model,” Pratt said. “Nobody’s attempted to do a connectivity project like this, and of this magnitude, in an urban core.”
Top photo: Steve Winter