It’s not quite a “bridge to nowhere” at this point, but it might be close. A group of environmentalists are looking to secure the funding for and begin construction on a new overpass crossing the 101 Freeway north of Los Angeles in the Santa Monica Mountains, one of the busier stretches of highway in the region. Expanding a highway is generally not national news, but in this case it might be because this overpass isn’t going to carry any cars, trucks, trains or even bicycles. This one will be covered with grass, trees and the other trappings of a wilderness setting. And it’s being designed for mountain lions.

Coming with a price tag of $60M this is bound to raise a few eyebrows, but the good news is that the taxpayers wouldn’t be footing the bill for the majority of it. The state would have to design and build it, but the money would need to come from private donations. (LA Times)

As 101 Freeway traffic streaked past, a dozen conservationists and fundraisers gathered this week just west of Liberty Canyon Road in Agoura Hills, their eyes alternating between maps they carried and the contours of a canyon where mountain lions hunt and breed.

But it wasn’t the big cats they were looking for. Their target, instead, was a patch of land that could anchor a 200-foot-long, 165-foot-wide overpass spanning a stretch of freeway that carries 100,000 vehicles each day.

The bridge they hope to build near Liberty Canyon Road, scientists say, would provide safe crossing for wildlife, helping diversify the gene pool among the small, isolated populations of mountain lions remaining in the Santa Monica Mountains south of the freeway as well as in the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains to the north.

The goal isn’t entirely silly. Apparently, the small section of the mountain range to the northwest of LA is cut off from the rest of the big cats’ habitat to the north by the freeway. The small population of mountain lions there is facing problems with inbreeding due to their small numbers and large hunting range requirements. Assuming that the cats and other animals would use the bridge, it could improve their situation noticeably.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions being raised. First of all, the $60M price tag isn’t entirely destined to be covered by donations. 20% will come from taxpayer funds and that’s not peanuts. If they’re actually able to raise the rest, you’d think that private sector donations could cover the whole thing. But thus far they only report having raised $3.6M so they have a long way to go. Also, mountain lions in California aren’t even on the endangered species list. They are described as having a “stable” population upwards of 6,000, so this entire project is only going to go toward saving a relative handful of them in this particular range of mountains.

Also, are lions really going to be interested in using an overpass? The design supposedly calls for sound dampeners and such, but walking across a bridge over a busy freeway is probably still a daunting idea for a wild animal. I’m just taking a guess here of course, but some of the lions may just try crossing the road themselves anyway. Will they even know that the overpass is there unless it connects to their own territory?

Back to the monetary situation. Which charitable causes people choose to generously give money to is obviously up to them, but if there’s almost $60M in charitable contributions out there waiting to be tapped, don’t we have more pressing needs? I’m pretty sure a large part of that region just burned up recently, didn’t it? And the homeless problem in most of California’s cities is out of control. How much are you going to spend on saving a couple hundred big cats?

Might I propose an alternate plan? This is a fairly compact portion of the mountains we’re talking about. Couldn’t wildlife specialists trap the lions and airlift them to the more open mountain ranges to the north? It seems to me that you could do that for far less money and not need another massive overpass to maintain indefinitely.