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California groundbreaking set for largest wildlife crossing

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Groundbreaking is set for next month on what’s billed as the world’s largest wildlife crossing – a bridge over a major Southern California highway that will provide more room to roam for mountain lions and other animals hemmed in by urban sprawl.

A ceremony marking the start of construction for the span over US 101 near Los Angeles will take place on Earth Day, April 22, the National Wildlife Federation announced Thursday.

The bridge will give big cats, coyotes, deer, lizards, snakes and other creatures a safe route to open space in the Santa Monica Mountains and better access to food and potential mates, said the wildlife federation’s Beth Pratt.

“Crossings like this are nothing new,” Pratt said, noting there is one outside Yosemite for toads. “This one’s historic because we’re putting it over one of the busiest freeways in the world.”

She helped organise the project along with other conservationists and state transportation officials.

An illustration shows a rendering of a wildlife bridge crossing over US Highway 101 between two separate open space preserves on conservancy lands in the Santa Monica Mountains in Agoura Hills. PHOTO: AP

Pratt said the bridge will be the first of its kind near a major metropolis and the largest in the world, stretching 200 feet above 10 highway lanes and a feeder road just 35 miles northwest of downtown LA.

Construction will take place mostly at night and won’t require any lengthy shutdowns of the 101 freeway, officials have said. It’s slated to be completed by early 2025.

The USD90 million price tag will be covered by about 60 per cent private donations, with the rest coming from public funds set aside for conservation purposes. The span will be named the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, for the philanthropist whose foundation donated USD25 million.

Governor Gavin Newsom called the project an “inspiring example” of public-private partnership.

“California’s diverse array of native species and ecosystems have earned the state recognition as a global biodiversity hotspot. In the face of extreme climate impacts, it’s more important than ever that we work together to protect our rich natural heritage,” Newsom said in a statement on Thursday.

The star of the fundraising campaign was the mountain lion P-22.

Famous for travelling across two freeways and making a huge Los Angeles park his home, the big cat became a symbol of the shrinking genetic diversity of wild animals that must remain all but trapped by sprawling development or risk becoming roadkill.

Scientists tracking cougars fitted with GPS collars found over decades that roadways are largely confining animals in mountains that run along the Malibu coast and across the middle of LA to Griffith Park, where P-22 settled.