Building The World’s Largest Animal Crossing Outside of LA
This article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Michelle Loxton, was originally published on KCLU.
There’s a spot on Highway 101 in Agoura Hills, it’s pretty inconspicuous. There’s brown and green rolling hills on either side of the highway. Homes are sprinkled here and there. And then a small metal gate that leads off on a hiking trail. You probably wouldn’t know it, but soon this spot will be the location of the world’s largest animal crossing.
This crossing will reconnect habitats that have been cut off from each other for three quarters of a century and it’ll do it over a highway that is constantly buzzing with cars — 300,000 pass by this spot every single day.
In this piece we’re going on a geography voyage — from the north side of the highway to the south, and up the hills, above the highway, to get the real view.
We’ll start here — there’s a big open space on the northern side of the highway. It’s at the entrance to Liberty Canyon and where I meet Beth Pratt.
“You have oak trees, a little creek area here. And we’re listening to, actually, an Anna’s hummingbird giving a little song for us that is actually resonating even over that, that noise of traffic,” Pratt said.
She is the California Regional Director for the National Wildlife Federation.
“For me what’s kind of remarkable, but also sad. It’s the last sixteen hundred feet of protected space on both sides of the freeway,” said Pratt.
Pratt describes this area like an hourglass with the highway being the middle point. But unlike an hourglass where sand, or wildlife in this case, would flow from one side to another, Highway 101 has been an almost impenetrable wall for the wildlife in this region for three quarters of a century.
“The wildlife were already sort of coming to this area. And what the National Park Service study has shown for at least the wildlife they have collared or tracking, like the mountain lions or or coyotes. They get here and they’re like, ‘Ah Ah, I’m not crossing this and they turn around’,” said Pratt.
It’s a cooler day when we meet up and Pratt is wearing a Christmas Sweater with Mountain Lion P-22 on the front.
“Who I call the Brad Pitt of the Cougar world,” Pratt said.
That’s right — a puma celebrity. “P” is for puma and “22” is because he was the twenty second puma to get a tracking collar. Pratt also has a tattoo of P-22 on her arm and carries around a cardboard cut-out of the big cat.
As you can tell he’s a big deal to her and really the inspiration for the world’s largest animal crossing.
“For me, what he did was get the public engaged, which is really important. The park service and others have been talking about the need for connectivity for a while. But it wasn’t something that resonated with people outside of the environmental or scientific world. But all of a sudden boom, you get this lonely, dateless, handsome bachelor show up in Griffith Park,” said Pratt.
So the story of P-22 is pretty remarkable. He was born somewhere near here, in the Santa Monica Mountains but ultimately made his way across two very busy highways, unhurt and undetected, and ended up in the center of L.A. in Griffith Park about 50 miles away. It was kind of a fluke that he made it there safely and so has been unable to leave since… living in the area for more than a decade now. The lonely, handsome mountain lion, as Pratt puts it, became a local celebrity and spurred the campaign for connecting wild spaces.
“I think anthropomorphizing… fine. We are animals. You know. P22 isn’t lonely like, we’re lonely, but you know, he’s discontented. And I think when we talk about him dating, pretty much everybody realizes I’m not talking about him, you know, getting in an Uber and using Tinder,” said Pratt.
Wrong or right, that image of the sad bachelor cougar was effective. Pratt and the National Wildlife Federation began publicly raising money for this project back in 2014. It was priced at $90 million and they raised the money through private philanthropy, a combination of big and small donations, and from funds from the state Wildlife Conservation Board.
Now P-22 has been a huge inspiration for this project but he won’t benefit from this particular wildlife crossing – he’s just too cut off at the moment. But so many other mountain lions will.
Pratt thinks these types of wildlife crossings are the future of animal conservation.
“You don’t need a Yosemite on every block, but you need connectivity to open space habitats,” said Pratt. “Even in our best protected places on the planet, like a Yosemite or Yellowstone. Both places, you know, I had the good fortune to work in, the wildlife aren’t doing great, you know, in some respects, not all of them, but I mean, look at Yellowstone with the wolves. They walk an inch outside the boundary, which, you know, they don’t know park boundaries and they can be shot. Look at the bears in Yosemite. They don’t know the park boundaries.”
Pratt believes cordoning off wildlife into national parks hasn’t been really all that beneficial for them. Ironically, here in Southern California, we actually live in close proximity to and amongst a lot of wildlife. She believes that makes people care more.
“Separating us did not allow people then to build a day to day relationship with wildlife, and I think if anything, more than all the other stuff I mentioned, that’s key to ensuring wildlife have a future. Because if people don’t care about wildlife or don’t have relationships with it. How are you going to ask them to help save it?” said Pratt.
She is very excited for the day the crossing opens.
“I know I will just, you know, probably start crying once that first animal uses it and we’re taking bets like, what’s the first animal going to be to use it? Probably a lizard,” Pratt said.
I make my way under the highway on a road that takes cars to the south side of the 101. There’s an echoey drum as cars pass above me.
Agoura Road travels parallel to the highway and it’s on this road you’ll find another trailhead that heads south into the Santa Monica Mountains.
This is the southern point of the animal crossing and it’s where I meet Sheik Moinuddin. He’s an engineer from Caltrans (District 7) and their project manager for the crossing.
“So when we got the opportunity to build something like this, obviously, we kind of jumped in it, uh, we don’t have the money, but we have the will to do it. And we have the expertise to do it,” said Moinuddin.
This is a first for Caltrans and Moinuddin who will oversee the project.
“It’s a huge over crossing over a very busy freeway. This is the first!” said Moinuddin. “It is just not the first for Caltrans, it is actually first for U.S.”
The basic engineering is pretty amazing. The crossing will be 170 feet wide and 210 feet long. For comparison that would be a bridge about the width of an American football field crossing over 10 lanes of highway.
And because of the geography in the area, it’ll be quite steep on the south side. For every 300 feet there will be a 100 foot drop.
The project will be broken up into two segments. First the bridge over the 101 highway and then the tunnel over Agoura Road.
They’ll start by clearing the vegetation in the area, then they’ll erect the columns. Then the precast bridge will be driven in and placed on top of those columns.
Motorists won’t be affected much, says Moinuddin, as there will only be a couple of late night weekend lane closures.
Moinuddin says he’s hopeful this animal crossing will become a model for the future and he’s happy to be a pioneer of sorts.
“Ah seriously, I’m hoping that this project will show to the world that, yes, this is possible and we can do that,” said Moinuddin.
I take the trail nearby and hike up one of the hills on the south side of the highway. I want to get a bird’s eye view of where the crossing will be.
Seth Riley joins me on the hike. He’s the wildlife branch chief for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation area — part of the National Park Service.
This park stretches north from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the 101 in one direction, and from the Hollywood Hills west to just below Port Hueneme in the other. It’s the biggest urban national park in the country, in fact.
“And so all the work that we do to understand and try to preserve wildlife communities and populations is focused on understanding what are the impacts of urbanization and habitat fragmentation on wildlife,” said Riley.
We’ve stopped to talk about halfway up the hill where there’s a great view of the 101 below us. The wind has picked up.
Riley has been with this park for 22 years and they’ve been studying carnivores and mountain lions specifically for about the same amount of time. So they have some pretty decent data about them.
Here’s what they’ve learned.
“The Santa Monica Mountains by themselves are not big enough for a viable population of this species, that’s just really only room for maybe 12 to 15 adults and sub adults, and that’s just not enough demographically or especially genetically in the long run for a viable population,” said Riley.
Male mountain lions have massive home ranges – typically up to 250 square miles. The entire Santa Monica Mountains is 370 square miles so there’s space for only a few dominant males.
The 101, and other highways, have prevented these lions from seeking out new territories and so they’re literally boxed into an area.
“Really important thing we’ve learned about the Mountain Lions is that genetic diversity in the lions in the Santa Monicas is very low, basically the lowest that anyone’s seen,” said Riley.
The genetic diversity is low because of inbreeding. Ok, don’t judge…. But fathers are mating with daughters, grand daughters and even great granddaughters.
Scientists have found sperm quality is very poor with some of the male mountain lions being found to have more than 90 percent abnormal sperm.
Here’s how the animal crossing will help.
“The goal is not for the population to get bigger because it is what it is. The goal is for it to be better connected to the other populations,” said Riley.
But the goal here is that the crossing will benefit all animals in the area – mule deer (prey for mountain lions), bobcats, coyotes, badgers, rabbits, mice, voles, woodrats, horn lizards, tree frogs, snakes, ants, quail and even birds who are strong fliers. Riley says studies have shown that birds use animal crossings to pass over highways in a way they wouldn’t across open highways with cars.
This animal crossing means a lot to Riley because it’s solving a problem. He says often their research doesn’t result in big solutions like this one.
“We learn a lot of things and we convey that information as best we can to other folks. But often it’s not something we can sort of do that much about necessarily and others can and do, which is great. But in this case, we’re really contributing to something that’s actually going to happen,” said Riley.
And how did we get here? There’s the celebrity puma, the years of fundraising for the animal crossing – and then, before all that, preserving all this incredibly valuable coastal land. It has taken decades to create this wild space.
Rorie Skei is the chief deputy director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Skie is in charge of land acquisition.
“It has been putting together these puzzle pieces, so a lot of planning, a lot of working on ‘OK’ this landowner is not a willing seller. How long will it take to get them to be a willing seller?” said Skei.
A couple of miles further south from that windy hilltop with the view of the 101, we’re at King Gillette Ranch. Skei and I sit outside the visitor center where feral parrots chirp in the trees and a herd of mule deer graze nearby. This ranch was a major acquisition years in the making, Skei says.
Open space is sometimes already part of a park system, some of it is donated, but a lot of the time it’s privately owned and very expensive.
“That’s what we found over and over again. Circumstances change. Owners become willing sellers, and then it’s a scramble to try to assemble the money to pay the appraised price,” said Skei.
So this is the part I get excited about… the little details about the animal crossing itself. What’s it going to be like?
To find that out I connect over Zoom with Robert Rock. He’s the principal and COO at Living Habits, and the lead architect on the project. He’s based in Chicago.
Rock speaks with such colorful language when he describes the crossing. He says things like it’ll be a gigantic green roof on steroids. Or..
“That kind of green toupee over the freeway,” said Rock.
He describes the crossing as an ecological stitch that’ll weave together the rich tapestry or wild spaces of the region.
“How can we make this feel like the structure is carrying the mountain across the road? How can we make the structure feel like it really, truly is a visceral connective thread?” said Rock.
He says an important part of this project has been the need to deal with the biggest issues surrounding the crossing.
“How does this sit within the watershed? How does this sit within the Santa Monicas? How does this sit within the state of California and how does it sit within the entire western region?” said Rock.
As well as the tiny tiniest issues that no one will notice
“But then we go all the way down to the microscopic level where we’re talking about building soil ecology, we’re talking about microbial biomass,” said Rock. “Nine out of ten people are not going to even know that we spent all this time thinking about the microbial biomass in the soil and the, you know, the degree to which that links to the carbon sequestration or the minutia of how we design spaces to accommodate the California kingsnake.”
The team will restore the vegetation around the crossing with species native to the area – looking at sage scrub, chaparral and oak woodlands. They’ll build fencing to keep animals away from the highway. They’ll also construct massive walls on the edge of the highway and on the crossing, which will be covered in vegetation that decreases sound.
“To take it a step further we were looking for strategies where we could reduce not just the high and medium frequency sounds that sound walls typically are good at, you know, at buffering for. But we’re also trying to reduce the low frequency sounds,” said Rock.
The height and thickness of the bridge has also been considered to avoid the noise of the cars below.
They’ve also thought about the light. They are looking into lowering street lights on the nearby offramps without affecting safety.
The color palette is taken from the Santa Monica Mountains. Rock says this will help darken the structure at night so you don’t have that reflective glow you sometimes see on concrete bridges.
It’s all to make the bridge as inviting as possible to wildlife.
On the bridge itself they will have plant communities but not giant trees. They don’t want to overload the crossing.
“We’re creating a project nursery for this, where we are going to be growing all the plants that are going to be a part of this construction. And part of that is leveraging, you know, seed bank that the National Park Service has and that we’ll be collecting from the site and from adjacent areas,” said Rock.
They are also collecting native fungi that are linked to these plant communities. The crossing will be an ecosystem of its own.
“We’re going to end up having species that are going to call that crossing home because it’s going to be this piece of habitat that they don’t navigate out of,” said Rock.
Construction work starts in April on the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, named for the philanthropists who gave a lot of money. There will be a live webcam during construction so you can watch the progress.
Once completed wild spaces will be connected from the Pacific Ocean and Malibu all the way up to the Los Padres National Forest, and many more thousands of square miles of habitat beyond that.
The crossing will be open for business by late 2024, early 2025.
And no, humans will not be allowed on it — just like the name suggests it’s an animal crossing just for them.
For many of the people working on this project it’s been a long process to get to this point. Conserving the land over decades, getting P-22 to inspire grand philanthropy, to design and engineering never seen before. But for the same people they hope this is really just the beginning.
“My primary goal with this is that while I want this to be the best project that it possibly can be. I don’t want it to be the cutting edge for long. I want the next project to be even better,” said Rock.
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Michelle Loxton is a podcast host and producer with KCLU in Thousand Oaks, California.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. And now it’s time to check in on the state of science.
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IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. Southern California, including Los Angeles, is home to a diverse ecosystem, from big predators like mountain lions and coyotes to little lizards and mice. So many creatures call this area home. Unfortunately for them, so does the 101, a busy multi-lane highway that runs up and down the West Coast.
How can we make room for everybody? Well, engineers, conservationists, and animal enthusiasts have come together to break ground on a massive project they hope will make life a little easier for the species that live in the area– a giant animal crossing, a grassy path from one side of the freeway to the other– for the animals, of course, not the people.
Work starts on this massive project today. And joining me to talk about the Animal Crossing of SoCal is my guest. Michelle Loxton is podcast host and producer for KCLU Public Radio in Thousand Oaks, California. She reports the story for a KCLU’s podcast, The 101. Welcome to Science Friday, Michelle.
MICHELLE LOXTON: Thank you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: OK. For those of us who aren’t based on the West Coast, tell us a little bit about the 101. Where is it? How long does it go?
MICHELLE LOXTON: So the 101 Highway is a north-south highway that stretches along almost the entire West Coast of the United States. The wildlife crossing will be built over Highway 101 in a city called Agoura Hills, which is just north of Los Angeles. And transportation experts have actually measured how many vehicles pass through this spot in Agoura Hills on the 101 highway. It’s 300,000 vehicles every single day.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Can you set the scene for what the ecosystem is like around where the crossing will go?
MICHELLE LOXTON: Sure. So if you’re standing at the location of the future wildlife crossing, you’ll see a lot of rolling hills on either side of the highway. You’ll see sage scrub, chaparral, and patches of oak woodlands.
To the south of the highway, you have this massive open wild protected space called the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. It extends all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and it’s the biggest urban national park in the country, in fact. And it’s amongst this wild space in these neighborhoods on either side of the highway you’ll find mountain lions, deer, bobcats, coyotes, badgers, rabbits, mice, wood rats, horned lizards, tree frogs, snakes, and some quail and all sorts of birds.
IRA FLATOW: Amazing. So how does the 101 impact all these creatures that live there?
MICHELLE LOXTON: It has a big impact on them. I’m going to bring in the voice of Beth Pratt now, who I think describes the situation really well. So Pratt is from the National Wildlife Federation. She’s led the campaign to get this wildlife crossing built.
So the first thing to know about where the wildlife crossing will be built is that this is the last 1,600 feet of protected wild space on both sides of the highway in our region. Pratt describes this location like an hourglass where you have these big open spaces on either side of the highway that are funneled into the center point of the hourglass, the center point of the hourglass being the highway itself.
But unlike with an hourglass where sand would flow from one side to the other, in this case, the animals are the sand, and they’ve been blocked for decades from moving through the area because of the impenetrable wall that is Highway 101. Here’s Beth Pratt.
BETH PRATT: The wildlife were already coming to this area. And what the National Park Service study has shown for at least the wildlife they have collared or tracking, like the mountain lions or coyotes– they get here and they’re like, huh-uh, I’m not crossing this. And they turn around.
MICHELLE LOXTON: If they do try and cross, they could be hit by cars. But like Pratt said there, a lot of them don’t even try and essentially are boxed into the region where they were born. And this has had a disastrous effect on genetic diversity. The National Park Service has been studying carnivores in the region for 20 years, and they found that mountain lions in the Santa Monicas have very low genetic diversity, basically the lowest that anyone’s seen. And that’s because of inbreeding.
Because mountain lions can’t disperse because of the highway, male mountain lions are mating with daughters, granddaughters, and even great granddaughters. For the wildlife experts, the wildlife crossing is a solution to this problem. It would allow the animals to safely cross the highway, firstly, and then it would allow them to mix with other populations in other regions.
IRA FLATOW: We’ve buried the lead here a bit. There’s a celebrity in this story– P-22, a Puma, who is local Los Angeles legend. Can you tell us about P-22?
MICHELLE LOXTON: Yes. So P-22 really is our lead character in this story. P-22 is a mountain lion that was born in the Santa Monica Mountains over 10 years ago. P is for puma, and 22 is because he was the 22nd puma or mountain lion to get a tracking collar.
And when he was really young, he went on this incredible journey. He left the Santa Monica Mountains and managed to cross two of the busiest highways in our region, unhurt and undetected, and ended up in Griffith Park in Hollywood, where there are no other known mountain lions. Because his journey was such a fluke, he hasn’t been able to leave Griffith Park and has essentially been stuck there for a decade on his own.
But in this time, he’s become a bit of a celebrity. Beth Pratt is kind of obsessed with P-22. She has a tattoo of him on her arm and carries around this life-size cardboard cutout of him so people can take pictures with P-22. She’s called him the Brad Pitt of the mountain lion world, and the public love that.
BETH PRATT: For me, what he did was get the public engaged, which is really important. The Park Service and others have been talking about the need for connectivity for a while, but it wasn’t something that resonated with people outside of the environmental or scientific world. But all of a sudden, boom, you get this lonely, dateless, handsome bachelor show up in Griffith Park.
MICHELLE LOXTON: And it worked. People love that idea of P-22 and got invested in this idea of connecting wild spaces. And they started raising money for a wildlife crossing. Now, unfortunately, this particular wildlife crossing that we’re talking about today won’t benefit P-22. He’s just to cut off at the moment. But it will benefit many other mountain lions.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s unfortunate. Let’s talk more about the animal crossing. How long has this been in the works?
MICHELLE LOXTON: Well, the National Wildlife Federation started talking about this crossing behind the scenes in 2012. And then with p-22 as the face of the campaign, they went to the public and started raising money two years later. It was a pretty steep fundraising hill to climb. The project was priced at $90 million. But they’ve raised the money through state funds, 40%, and private philanthropy, 60%. The biggest single private donation was $26 million.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. This seems like it would be a major feat of engineering. OK. Can you walk us through– what’s it going to look like?
MICHELLE LOXTON: Absolutely. So there’s so many wonderful details about the crossing itself. In terms of size, the crossing will be about the width of an American football field going over 10 lanes of highway. The people designing it have described it to me like a green roof on steroids or a green toupee.
They’re taking special care to make sure the crossing matches its environment. So they’ve taken the very biggest things into account, like how the crossing will fit in with the watershed in the region, all the way down to the microscopic level with the building of soil ecology. Here’s Robert Rock, the COO of Living Habitats and the lead architect, talking about all the different details that they’ve considered.
ROBERT ROCK: Nine out of 10 people are not going to even know that we spent all this time thinking about the microbial biomass in the soil and the degree to which that links to carbon sequestration or the minutia of how we design spaces to accommodate the California king snake. We’re creating a project nursery for this where we are going to be growing all the plants that are going to be a part of this construction.
MICHELLE LOXTON: Another big part of the design is it has to be inviting to animals. That’s the whole point, right? They need to get these animals to use it. So here are a few things that they’re doing. They’re putting massive sound barriers on the crossing itself and along the highway to dampen the noise of traffic. The height and thickness of the bridge has also been considered to avoid the noise of the cars below. They’ve also thought about the light. So they’re looking into lowering streetlights on the nearby off ramps without affecting safety.
The color palette has been taken from the Santa Monica Mountains, as I mentioned before. And this will help darken the structure at night so they don’t have this reflective glow that you sometimes see on concrete bridges. They want it to work for all animals, from a quail to a snake to the mountain lions.
IRA FLATOW: That is so cool. And it’s great that work begins on this project today, Earth Day. OK. So how long will it take to complete?
MICHELLE LOXTON: OK. With all big projects, there’s always an approximate date. But Beth Pratt told me that she hopes it will open for business by late 2024, early 2025. And they all have bets in place on what they think will be the first animal to use it. Pratt thinks maybe a lizard. I don’t know if you want to hazard a guess, Ira, but I think maybe a bird or perhaps a very brave coyote.
IRA FLATOW: I’ll go with the coyote. I think I’m with I’m with the coyote on this one. So this is going to be the first of its kind in terms of how big this crossing is. But could we expect to see more of these in California, or perhaps even across other parts of the country?
MICHELLE LOXTON: This is a big hope for everyone involved in the project. Yes, animal crossings in different forms exist all over the world. We’ve seen ones for crabs going over roads. We’ve seen ones for bears going under roads. But one this big and intricate going over such a busy highway is a first. And those involved don’t want it to be cutting-edge for long.
IRA FLATOW: Michelle, that’s a really interesting Earth Day story. Thank you for bringing it to us.
MICHELLE LOXTON: Thank you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Michelle Loxton is podcast host and producer for KCLU Public Radio in Thousand Oaks, California. She reported this story for KCLU’s podcast, The 101. And now here’s SciFri trivia host Diana Montano with some Earth Day meditations.
DIANA MONTANO: Thanks, Ira. Here’s a few amazing facts about the Earth to help you wander around our planet in awe today. Sharks have been on this world longer than trees. In 2020, over 20% of energy produced in the US came from renewable energy sources, including wind, solar, and hydroelectric power. Conservation efforts have helped move the snow leopard on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list from endangered to vulnerable.
In Death Valley National Park, when the balance of water ice and wind are just right, stones can sail across the ground. And they leave a trail in the sandy soil as evidence of their journey behind.
IRA FLATOW: Wow! Who knew? Thanks, Diana.
Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.