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Work underway on world's largest wildlife crossing, being built over Highway 101 in Conejo Valley

Lance Orozco
The Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing will span Highway 101 at Liberty Canyon, in the Agoura Hills area.

200 foot long crossing will span freeway in the Liberty Canyon area, providing passage for wildlife between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Simi Hills.

After years of planning, and fundraising, construction is underway in the Conejo Valley on what’s considered to be one of the world’s most ambitious wildlife conservation projects. It’s a wildlife crossing over Highway 101, providing safe passage between two critical wildlife habitats.

"I'm going to try not to cry, because I did when I drove up. As someone who has been working on this for a decade... it's getting real," said Beth Pratt, who's Regional Executive Director of the National Wildlife Federation.

She helped spearhead the campaign to raise about $100 million for the effort to build the massive wildlife crossing over the 101 in Agoura Hills, at Liberty Canyon.

The 200 foot long, 165 foot wide Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing will be much more than a bridge. It will be fully landscaped, creating a safe way for everything from mountain lions to deer to cross between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Simi Hills habitats currently bisected by the freeway.

"Cats are something that gets attention, so that's why our Brad Pitt of the cougar world, P-22, was the mascot of our campaign," said Pratt. "Plus, they are the wildlife most at risk of extinction."

But, she said all kinds of wildlife, from bobcats and deer to lizards will use it.

Biologists say connecting the habitats is critical in creating genetic diversity for a number of species, especially mountain lions.

National Park Service wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich has been studying the Santa Monica Mountains mountain lion population. He says the wildlife crossing isn’t about reducing road kill, but increasing generic diversity.

"The 101 is a formidable barrier. Most animals we track don't even attempt to cross," said Sikich.

But he said it's really about animals being able to cross, which will increase genetic diversity.

After a project to relocate some utility lines, actual construction work is just getting underway.

Pratt leads us up a steep trail on the south side of Highway 101. We’re hiking to the top of a hill overlooking the project, in fact much of the Conejo Valley. It has a live webcam you can use to watch the project taking shape.

But, once it’s done, will wildlife find, and use the crossing? Pratt said yes. "Animals are smart. They are navigating like us...trying to find routes."

Construction is expected to take about three years, with the goal to have the wildlife crossing completed, and ready for use in 2025.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.