Paving a Path for Wildlife

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Southern California's coast is full of biological diversity, but urban sprawl could threaten hundreds of endangered plants and animals. KPCC's Molly Peterson reviewed a new report that describes ways to link open spaces to help those species thrive. She toured one of those linkages, starting near the 101 Freeway in Agoura Hills.

Molly Peterson: We're squinting into the wind at Liberty Canyon, a stretch of public parkland straddling the highway. National Park Service biologist Ray Sauvajot points down the vista at the armpit of the highway overpass, where a paved road cuts underneath.

Ray Sauvajot: What we have done is monitored wildlife movement at all the potential locations where animals could move, none of which were really created for wildlife, but things like culverts and underpasses and tunnels and whatever may be out there, and we know that animals move right now under the roadway underpass that's right there. So we know deer go through there, we suspect that bobcats occasionally move through there.

Peterson: For five years, from the far side of the canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains, Sauvajot has tracked mountain lions. Ones that he's collared has never crossed under at Liberty Canyon, but Sauvajot knows that a meat-eating lion will cross over busy roads to claim food and territory, while risking cars and competition.

Sauvajot: Clearly they move, they can get places, they can do things, and we know that there have been intraspecific battles where two mountain lions fight each other, and we've had a couple of males killed by other large males. And one of the contributing factors is that dispersal is difficult.

Peterson: Mountain lions aren't the only animals that show up in cars' headlights, or on researchers' radar. Conservation biologists first mapped wildlife corridors in California eight years ago. The state's been using that study as a guide; last year California's Resources agency spent about $165 million to conserve land.

A group called South Coast Wildlands is using the study now as a jumping off point for their own new designs and routes for 15 regional wildlands linkages. The wildland group's Kristeen Penrod believes corridors can rescue species from encroaching development.

Kristeen Penrod: Research has shown us that big areas, even as big as the San Gabriel mountains, are not large enough by themselves to support species over time, and so we really need to maintain these connections so that there's a network.

Peterson: Penrod believes that Liberty Canyon is a key puzzle piece, and that even a small tunnel here could connect habitat for badgers to deer to the mountain lions that prey on them. Wilderness crossings aren't too tough a sell in Southern California. In these parts, the state Department of Transportation is on the lookout for ways to spend millions in mitigation dollars attached to new roads. But creating the linkages takes time. On a hill in the Wood Ridge open space, the Nature Conservancy's EJ Remson wrestles with a map of Simi Hills parklands. Around here in the last year, he's kept his sights on fewer than a dozen access points between dedicated open spaces.

EJ Remson: We can buy property in fee from people, willing sellers who are interested in selling us property, we'll but it in fee, or we can buy an easement across it, just like you might have an easement for a power line that goes across your property. We can just simply buy the development rights, or an easement, across the property that would protect the corridor in perpetuity.

Peterson: Two-thirds of the land in the proposed Santa Monica-Sierra Madre linkage isn't protected yet. But Remson says he hopes the Nature Conservancy can close key gaps. Housing developers, among others, tend to consider open space a plus. Still, the South Coast Wildlands' report proposes locking up another 80,000 acres just for this linkage.

South Coast Wildlands' Kristeen Penrod says one goal of the new report is to highlight corridors' role in maintaining a healthy gene pool for threatened species, and in helping animals find prey and adapt to climate change. But if a corridors plan gains steam, those animals aren't the only beings that could travel from the southern sierras to Baja California without using a freeway.

Penrod: You know, our primary focus is making sure that some large critters like mountain lions and badgers could do that. But they don't necessarily just have to be functioning for wildlife. They can provide some serious recreational opportunities for all of Southern California.

Peterson: Hikers and bicyclists included.