2014-03-06 / Front Page

Pushing for safe passage

By Sylvie Belmond

Liberty Canyon Road under the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills is one of the only places left in the area where mountain lions and other animals can move in and out of the Santa Monica Mountains.

But the roadway can be deadly.

Last October a mountain lion was struck and killed near the Liberty Canyon interchange as it tried to move south. Had it been able to pass safely from one side of the freeway to the other, the young male could have helped bolster the cougar population in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Only one lion is known to have survived the highway crossing over the past decade.

Environmentalists agree that building a permanent wildlife corridor at Liberty Canyon Road—as well as at other points across the 118 and 23 freeways in Ventura County—is the best hope for the animals.

On Feb. 24, two dozen residents and representatives from local cities, open space agencies and Caltrans toured the Liberty Canyon freeway interchange to see firsthand the obstacles animals face when trying to cross.


GETTING A CLOSER LOOK—State Sen. Fran Pavley leads a tour of the Liberty Canyon underpass in Agoura Hills, the only place in the region where animals such as mountain lions can cross the 101 Freeway. A safer route over the top of the freeway is being considered. 
SYLVIE BELMOND/Acorn Newspapers GETTING A CLOSER LOOK—State Sen. Fran Pavley leads a tour of the Liberty Canyon underpass in Agoura Hills, the only place in the region where animals such as mountain lions can cross the 101 Freeway. A safer route over the top of the freeway is being considered. SYLVIE BELMOND/Acorn Newspapers Under or over?

Most of the scientific community believes Liberty Canyon offers the best wildlife connection between the Simi Hills to the north and the Santa Monica Mountains to the south.

Since last year four mountain lions have been killed by cars in the region. In addition to the male cougar killed in October, three mountain lion kittens were struck by vehicles in recent weeks, one near Kanan Road in rural Agoura and two near the 126 Freeway in Ventura County.


GETTING INVOLVED—Paul Edelman of the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority discusses the need for a wildlife corridor across the 101. The project’s more than $10-million price tag will be an issue. 
SYLVIE BELMOND/Acorn Newspapers GETTING INVOLVED—Paul Edelman of the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority discusses the need for a wildlife corridor across the 101. The project’s more than $10-million price tag will be an issue. SYLVIE BELMOND/Acorn Newspapers The deaths have increased the resolve of the local community and park agency leaders to build a wildlife crossing in Agoura Hills. It is the only part of the Conejo/Las Virgenes Valley that is undeveloped on both sides of the freeway.

Jeremy Wolf, a Liberty Canyon resident and board member of the environmental nonprofit Save Open Space, said the wildlife crossing is critical to maintaining ecological diversity.

“I’m very concerned about the wildlife corridor because it’s the only way that animals can cross the 101 Freeway for 30 miles every way, and that genetic diversity can be brought from the north to the south side,” Wolf said.

Thousand Oaks City Councilmember Al Adam is hopeful a solution can be found.

“We have a unique opportunity to preserve a legacy here in Southern California and protect the mountain lion population,” Adam said.

Until recently, open space advocates were pushing for a $10-million tunnel under the freeway measuring some 310 feet long and 13 feet wide. The consensus today is that a passageway over the freeway would be better.

Seth Riley, a National Park Service urban wildlife expert, said an overpass with native vegetation could serve a variety of species, including not only mountain lions, but deer, bobcats and coyotes.

During a meeting later at Agoura High School, officials from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy approved a $200,000 grant to study the possibility of a Liberty Canyon crossing. The overpass study will take about one year.

If a plan is approved, construction of the wildlife crossing would be paid for with a combination of public and private funds.

Caltrans and local agencies will make several structural changes at the underpass to assist wildlife crossing in the meantime.

Paving the way

The Liberty Canyon interchange was built in the 1960s. Since then, different public agencies have worked together to acquire undeveloped parcels and create a natural transition for the animals in the area.

State Sen. Fran Pavley (DCalabasas), who lives in Liberty Canyon, is leading the effort to improve the wildlife corridor. But several properties still need to be acquired to enhance the natural corridor, Pavley said.

The parcels include a 71-acre site called Chesebro Meadows north of the freeway and a 2-acre commercial parcel at Liberty Canyon and Agoura roads. Both sites are slated for development.

Several Old Agoura residents urged the Conservancy to buy the Chesebro Meadows parcel north of the freeway as part of the corridor project.

“Chesebro Meadow is critical habitat to support the existing corridor,” said Jess Thomas, president of Old Agoura Homeowners Association.

Real estate investor Peter Baer, whose company owns an office building and a 2-acre vacant lot next to the proposed wildlife crossing, said he would provide access on his property for a temporary crossing.

“We love the idea of having our office building in the midst of a nature preserve,” Baer said.

Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, who chairs the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy board and is a staunch advocate for the preservation of open space, said she hopes the effort at Liberty Canyon will be replicated in Ventura County so animals can safely migrate to and from Los Padres National Forest.

“All wildlife deserves a safe migration route. This is the least we can do,” said Jim Haines of the Sierra Club.

Teachable moment

Children also participated in the discussion at Agoura High.

“Animals are being killed because they don’t want to go under the freeway. The wildlife corridor should be above the freeway for this reason,” said Daylin Jane, a fourth-grader from Woodlake Elementary Community Charter School in Woodland Hills, whose class is working on a model of the proposed overpass and a video about the challenges facing local wildlife.

Daylin’s teacher, Sherry Ferber, who lives in Liberty Canyon, said the class project is a good way to teach life science in connection with a real-life project.

“Too many animals are getting killed by trying to cross the freeway,” said student Luke Stein, who is making rubber band jewelry to raise funds for the wildlife overpass.

During a 12-year study by the National Park Service of the Santa Monica Mountains and surrounding habitat, it was determined that a total of 13 mountain lions have been struck and killed by vehicles.

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