2016-01-21 / Community

Plans progress for wildlife crossing

LIBERTY CANYON CROSSING
By Stephanie Bertholdo and Sylvie Belmond


JOINING FORCES—State Sen. Fran Pavley talks with Thousand Oaks City Councilmember Al Adam and residents Jan. 14 after a meeting at King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas about the wildlife crossing. 
SYLVIE BELMOND/Acorn Newspapers JOINING FORCES—State Sen. Fran Pavley talks with Thousand Oaks City Councilmember Al Adam and residents Jan. 14 after a meeting at King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas about the wildlife crossing. SYLVIE BELMOND/Acorn Newspapers

Caltrans and the National Wildlife Federation hosted a pair of meetings last week to inform residents about the options for a new wildlife crossing in Liberty Canyon.

The first session filled the room at the Agoura Hills City Hall on Jan. 13. The following day, some 300 people attended a meeting at King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas.

Barbara Marquez, senior environmental planner for Caltrans, and Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, the California director of the National Wildlife Federation, presented information at the meetings about the designs being considered for the wildlife crossing over the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills.

Marquez said plans to augment an existing tunnel under the freeway were rejected.

Environmentalists are calling for safe passage over the freeway that would allow animals to expand their territory from the Simi Hills and Sierra Madre Mountain ranges in the north to the Santa Monica Mountains in the south.

Two options for the project, one costing an estimated $50 million, are being considered.

The first would include a 165-foot-wide by 200-foot-long bridge across the freeway just west of Liberty Canyon Road. Noise barriers and vegetation would help block noise and light from the freeway and surrounding developments and blend the overpass into the existing landscape.

A second, more expensive alternative that received support from the Old Agoura Homeowners Association would be similar to the first, and would place the crossing over the freeway as well as Agoura Road to the south.

“The slope between the end of the bridge and Agoura Road would be built up before descending to join existing ground,” a Caltrans report stated. “The expectation is that the crossing extension would help alleviate wildlife impacts and mortality on Agoura Road.”

How to pay?

Pratt-Bergstrom said funds being raised by philanthropic organizations would supplement grants provided by public agencies and paid for by taxpayers.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy awarded a $200,000 grant for the first phase of the project including a report that was completed in May 2015. A $1-million grant for the next phase of the work was given by the State Coastal Conservation Board.

The conservancy and the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains also allocated $650,000 to remove and replace fences and improve landscaping in the area.

Trapped in the mountains

At the Jan. 14 King Gillette ranch meeting, National Park Service ecologist Seth Riley said roads and freeways act as barriers to animal migration. If the movement of large predators such as mountain lions is reduced, the animals will inbreed and die, he said.

Because the Santa Monica Mountains are divided by the freeway, cougars, coyotes bobcats and smaller animals such as lizards are showing genetic differences from one side of the range to the other. Mountain lions are the most vulnerable to this habitat fragmentation, Riley said.

The known successful cougar crossing was in 2008, when a male puma known as P-12 traveled from north to south. But P-12 is now said to be trapped and breeding with his offspring, experts said.

Without the ability to fully traverse the Santa Monica Mountains, adult males kill younger males, and young females mate with their fathers.

“We all know these animals have to be preserved for future generations,” Thousand Oaks Councilmember Al Adam said. “Building the wildlife crossing is a regional issue, and all local cities are involved in the endeavor.”

Timeline

Environmental studies on the wildlife crossing will continue until June 2017. Design issues will be evaluated with public input.

The last phase, June 2017 to April 2019, will finalize the design plans, obtain construction bids, and acquire property rights and environmental permits.

The hope is that the bridge will be finished and ready for wildlife crossings by November 2021.

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