My Father's Wildlife and The Corridor He Donated
A Pioneer Who Unpaved the Way for The Largest Proposed Wildlife Corridor in the US
Passages are metaphorical and literal. Yesterday marked the anniversary of my father's passing and every year I look back at aspects of his legacy. One of his proudest was donating land that he owned for many years to the Santa Monica Land Conservancy for a wildlife corridor. A builder and a street smart wheeler dealer found his true grit by making way for bobcats, mountain lions and deer to roam freely on his property from one mountain range to the other by donating his land. After holding on for 25 years, he let it go.
In 2001, he donated 107 acres that bridge the Santa Monica and Santa Susana Mountains just north of Los Angeles off of the 101 near Liberty Canyon. He was not a tree hugger, he was a land developer and built homes, apartment buildings and shopping centers. He had a turbulent relationship with that land from the day he bought it. His intention was to develop custom homes and secure a financial legacy for himself and his family. Zoning and an evolving list of environmental obstacles kept him in the game, yet always at odds with the city trying to find ways to get his way. Courting offers, fighting city officals, making threats to use it for landfill, listing it and just sitting on it, over time, a 25- year effort, it became clear the land hosted a corridor that had everything to do with the migration of the animals. When he came to his children to help weigh his decision, we all decided the animals would get the land. It was the right thing to do. Now EcoWatch has covered this area World’s Largest Wildlife Corridor to Be Built in California
'I feel like I am grandpa to many many species of animals.'
That issue has become more and more urgent in the LA basin as mountain lions and bobcats are trapped within small habitats surrounded by freeways and human barriers. The animals are unable to move freely and breed out of their own families and are beginning to capture the collective imagination because of their ferocity and accessibility and possible extinction.
Excerpt from Earth Island Institute and EcoWatch
Trapped Mountain Lions Plot Daring Escape From LA
BY JAMES WILLIAM GIBSON – SEPTEMBER 17, 2015
Network of wildlife corridors planned to ease big cats’ genetic bottleneck
Earlier this month an obscure Los Angeles area regional public lands agency — the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority — announced the first stages of a five-year plan to build one of the largest wildlife corridors in the world. The goal is to create a natural looking bridge that will allow a small cougar population in the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area the chance to escape north into much larger public lands, while at the same time allowing northern mountain lions the chance to move south and help out the badly inbred and lethally infighting Santa Monica cougars.
Although a young female from the Santa Monica Mountains, P33, did successfully cross Highway 101 in March this year, her escape north is a rare event.
The proposed bridge will leap over Highway 101, an eight-lane, east-west freeway in LA’s northern suburbs that sees 175,000 car trips a day. The bridge will be built at Liberty Canyon in the suburb of Agoura and when completed will be 200 feet-long and 165 feet-wide. It will be landscaped to blend in with the brushy hills and sound walls along the edge of the bridge will “mitigate traffic noise and block light in order to make the crossing more conducive to wildlife,” says the project study report. The bridge will extend beyond the 101, reaching over an access road south of the highway, necessitating the construction of a tunnel. Estimated cost of the entire project: about $57 million.
Despite the report’s dull bureaucratic language—mountain lion sex is blandly described as “the exchange of genetic material”—at its heart the proposed Liberty Canyon wildlife corridor represents an astonishing effort to reverse decades of suburban sprawl and fragmentation of the region’s surviving open spaces.
The campaign’s iconic poster boy is the famous “Hollywood lion,” also known by its wildlife ID number, “P22.” In 2012, P22 crossed two major freeways and migrated roughly 40 miles from the Santa Monica Mountains along the coast to Los Angeles’s 4300-acre Griffith Park on the city’s eastside. There he took up residence, feeding on the park’s mule deer and soon became a national celebrity of sorts.
P22, the only young male from the Santa Mountain Mountains to escape death, is not considered an example of successful dispersal because he will never breed. Photo credit: Crystal / Flickr
Beth Pratt was one of P22’s earliest and most ardent fans. Pratt, the California executive director of the National Wildlife Federation, was fascinated by the lion’s story and contacted wildlife biologists studying the Santa Monica Mountains cougars. One of those biologists was Dr. Seth Riley, who from 2002 to 2012 led a National Park Service team that trapped some 42 cougars: 26 from the Santa Monica Mountains, five from the Santa Susana Mountains north of 101 and the rest from throughout the region. All of the cougars were fitted with GPS transmitting collars. The cougars trapped north of 101 mostly survived. But the 12 young males from the Santa Monica Mountains did not make it. They tried to disperse, going right up to the edges of the region’s freeways. Four who tried to cross died in the effort. Five who turned back were attacked and killed by older male lions. One was shot by police; one died from unknown causes.
The only young male from the Santa Mountain Mountains to escape death was P22—and he is not considered an example of successful dispersal because he will never breed. “The [Santa Monica Mountains] are a population sink,” the park service’s Riley concludes. “The Santa Monica Mountain cougar population is not going to survive in the long run. For mountain lions, there is only room for ten-ish adults. That’s not enough genetically or even demographically. One male hit by a car and one killed by rodenticide and poof, you’re done.”
Beth Pratt became taken with P22 as an icon for all the trapped lions. “I’m a shameless marketer,” she admits. “I saw how P22 could be the absolute poster child. People just love him. Once people get focused on his specific story—the lonely bachelor—you can talk about mountain lions in general.
The intense scientific monitoring and the sophisticated engineering behind the fences, underpasses and bridges is but the physical embodiment of an important cultural change. In Southern California, wild dreams are being acted out in the effort to boost the cougar’s chances of survival. The conservation efforts symbolize that if we let the mountain lions die on the freeways and in their confined territories, then we will also lose part of ourselves.
Regarding my dad's story, in the end he was kind of a lonely bachelor like the lion.
The day he spoke in front of city and government officials and Santa Monica Land Conservancy delegates and media, I waited for him to make a wise crack or lose his composure. But it didn't happen. He was remarkable and poised. His message was about California and the land and the wildlife he wanted to help protect. His love of California was illustrated by his actions and making peace with the fact we would not see a secure future in that real estate development but in keeping the land open space.
It takes all kinds to inspire and participate in change, even the most unlikely of candidates. That land did become a part of him. When he no longer owned it, he seemed untethered. The transfer was a source of philosophical comfort but it made him seem a little lost. I want to honor people who make choices that can be painful like losing a piece of your identity for the greater good. I know my father suffered from the dashed dreams of not building his empire on that land when he was young enough to oversee it. By the time he transferred the land, his ability to make the leap in his mind that it wasn't his took some doing. I thank him and I am hoping and thinking the animals thank him too.