California is betting $61 million that new highway crossings will keep wildlife safe

Michelle Mariscal, an ecologist for the Puente Hills Habitat Preservation Authority, walks into the Harbor Boulevard Wildlife Underpass in La Habra Heights, on June 30, 2021. “This is the wildlife’s gateway to the open space on either side of this busy road,” Mariscal said. “The animals to the underpass are able to live longer lives.” Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

BY MARISSA GARCIA

It’d be just another normal day, nearly 17 feet above Highway 101 in Agoura Hills. 

A southern alligator lizard and a western toad hide from the heat in the greenery of restored native vegetation. Mountain lion cubs pounce on rocks and spring into the nearby canyons. The sun glints on the feathers of a golden eagle soaring overhead.

This is the scene environmentalists hope will someday become reality on a massive overpass above the ten-lane freeway that cuts through the Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles. The project known as the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing is one step closer to happening now that Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed a budget that includes $7 million to help build it — and another $54.5 million for similar projects in other parts of the state.   

It’s part of a larger nationwide push to build special bridges and tunnels that help animals safely cross busy roads and freeways. The goal is two-fold: to give species at risk the space they need to find mates, and to reduce the number of car crashes that imperil both wildlife and humans. 

About 7,000 vehicle crashes a year on California highways involve large wildlife, such as deer, according to 2018 data from the Road Ecology Center at the University of California, Davis. That’s nearly 20 crashes a day, at least. Many are likely unreported.

And they aren’t cheap — for the drivers or the government. Between 2015 and 2018, wildlife crashes have cost more than $1 billion. The expenses include car damage, personal injuries, emergency response, traffic impacts, lost work and the clean-up. 

Highways aren’t just crash sites for the deer caught in the headlights; they’re also a great divide that can threaten the future of an entire species. 

That’s because highways cut through critical habitat, making it impossible for animals from one side to breed with animals on the other. This leads to inbreeding and deformities that result from dwindling genetic diversity. 

Wildlife crossings can help. 

A rendering of the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing, which would help restore connectivity in the Santa Monica Mountain Range, buffering mountain lions from extinction. Photo courtesy of National Wildlife Federation/Living Habitats

An artist rendering of the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing, which would help restore connectivity in the Santa Monica Mountain Range, buffering mountain lions from extinction. Photo courtesy of National Wildlife Federation/Living Habitats

Utah saw a 98.5% reduction in deer mortalities when it built two animal underpasses on a stretch of highway that blocked traditional migratory routes. In Colorado, wildlife-vehicle collisions dropped by 89% after the state built two bridges to help mule deer and elk safely cross a highway. Arizona, Florida, Montana, Oregon, New Mexico, Washington and Wyoming have also built successful wildlife crossings.   

But California? Despite its environmentally-aware reputation, the Golden State lags in building these crossings. The Liberty Canyon overpass would be California’s first bridge on the state highway system designed specifically for fostering wildlife connectivity. And even with the new funding, it’s still years away from completion. 

“We’re not an environmental state,” said Fraser Shilling, co-director of the Road Ecology Center at UC Davis. “We don’t have environmental-based legislation that is resulting in protection of wildlife.”

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