The mountain lion called P-22, who is often spotted traveling across Los Angeles freeways and spending time in parks, is something of a legend in California. But it is also seen by conservationists as emblematic of the threats facing wild animals in a state known for sprawling development and spaghetti-style roadways.
Now, environmentalists and urban transportation officials are planning to build a mostly privately funded wildlife crossing over U.S. 101 in Southern California as a way to try to fend off the extinction of moutain lions and other animals that require more room to roam.
The new animal overpass, the second of its kind in the state, will also give coyotes, deer, lizards, snakes and other creatures a safe route to open space and better access to food and potential mates.
The Associated Press reports the overpass will be the largest in the world, stretching 200 feet above 10 lanes of busy highways and a feeder road just 35 miles northwest of downtown LA.
“When the freeway went in, it cut off an ecosystem. We’re just now seeing impacts of that,” Beth Pratt of the National Wildlife Federation told the AP.
Scientists tracking mountain lions fitted with GPS collars have reportedly found that roadways are trapping animals in the Santa Monica Mountains, preventing them from mating.
“They can’t get out of here to get dates, and cats can’t get in to get dates. ... For those of us in LA, having a romance prospect quashed by traffic is something we can all relate to,” Pratt said.
The result of that isolation, researchers say, is imminent genetic collapse for mountain lions. Habitat loss has driven the populations to inbreeding that could lead to extinction within 15 years unless the big cats regularly connect with other populations to increase their diversity, according to a study published this year, The Associated Press reports.
The $87 million bridge entered its final design phase last month and is on track for groundbreaking within two years and completion by 2023, according to officials.
More than $13.5 million in private funding have already been raised, Pratt said. Officials are considering offering naming rights to the bridge if an entity or individual – perhaps a Hollywood studio or star – ponies up a significant donation.
The remaining 20 percent will come from public funds already allocated toward conservation projects, officials said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.