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Cougar crossing coming! Work starts on Conejo Valley wildlife crossing, to be largest in world

Living Habitats
National Wildlife Federation
The artist's rendering of the planned wildlife overcrossing in Agoura Hills. It will be 200 feet long, and 165 feet wide.

Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing to span ten lanes of Highway 101 in Agoura Hills, creating safe passageway for mountain lions and other wildlife.

It was a groundbreaking event for what supporters call a groundbreaking project. After decades of research, and years of fundraising, work officially got underway Friday in the Conejo Valley on the world’s largest wildlife crossing

Elementary school student Dave Brown summed up the thoughts of hundreds of people at the ceremony with a simple sentence.

"I am very thankful for this crossing because it can help mountain lions stay safe, and not become road kill," said Brown. But, it has an even bigger mission, which is allowing wildlife to move to different areas of their native habitat, fostering genetic diversity.

The event kicked off work to build the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife crossing at Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills. The 200 foot long, 165 foot wide overpass will create a safe path for everything from lizards to mountain lions to cross Highway 101.

The wildlife crossing will connect the Simi Hills (north of Highway 101) with the Santa Monica Mountains.

It’s a project that stemmed from the research of some National Park Service biologists. They found that Southern California’s freeways have been serving as barriers to movement between parts of their native habitat.

"Big roads are a major barrier to movement," said National Park Service Wildlife Ecologist Seth Riley. "We learned that it's so much of a barrier that it creates genetic difference."

He said the crossing will allow wildlife to get from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Simi Hills.

National Park Service Biologst Jeff Sikich says the clock has been ticking on the future of the big cats.

"Our research has documented very low genetic diversity, and close inbreeding," said Sikich. "Within our lifetime, we could have a local extinction without connectivity. So, this wildlife crossing could not have come at a better time."

But Friday, it was speeches, smiles, and even the performance of a rap song about mountain lions as hundreds of people gathered near the site of the overcrossing to celebrate the start of work.

The National Wildlife Federation spearheaded the campaign to raise money for the $90 million project, which is a unique private-public partnership. The Federation adopted the mountain lion known as P-22, which lives in Griffith Park, as the symbol of the effort. The Federation’s Beth Pratt was the campaign’s biggest cheerleader.

"We did it!" Pratt told the excited crowd. She said it took a broad coalition of private and government groups, and agencies working together to make it happen.

Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks has spent decades working to preserve open space in the Conejo Valley.

"This bridge is going to help prevent the extinction of mountain lions, and other wildlife," said Parks.

More than a third of the money for the $90 million dollar project came from donations. Philanthropist Wallis Annenberg contributed more than $25 million to the effort.

"Today, we begin to reconnect the lands, and living creatures which never should have been fractured in the first place," said Annenberg.

California Governor Gavin Newsom calls the overpass an important start, noting that millions of dollars is already in the budget to look at similar projects around the state.

California Governor Gavin Newsom at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Overcrossing in Agoura Hills.

Liberty Canyon resident Aaron Zerlin says she’s thrilled to have the crossing in her neighborhood

"I think it's the greatest thing ever...I've been watching it for years," said Zerlin.

Work is expected to start in earnest this summer, with plans calling for the crossing to open in 2025.