It sounds like the plot of a Disney movie: A mountain lion, prevented from finding a mate because he’s trapped on Los Angeles’ freeways, becomes famous and inspires the construction of the world’s largest wildlife bridge.
But it really happened.
“He lived in a much smaller area than any male mountain lion ever — eight square miles,” explained Beth Pratt, director of the California National Wildlife Federation. “The average male mountain lion has a range of 150 miles.”
The cougar, named P-22, became a celebrity among Hollywood stars who would sometimes spot it roaming near neighborhoods near Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
National Park Service
Photo of the P-22 Mountain Lion
“There lived a mountain lion in Los Angeles and people weren’t afraid of it,” said Pratt, who has P-22 memorialized on her arm with a tattoo. “They saw him nearby; they were having dinner and he would walk by their dining room at night and they would share a photo and say, ‘Hey, P-22 visited me.'”
One of her career highlights was receiving an email from actor Alan Ruck — of the HBO series “Succession” and Pratt’s favorite movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” — saying he had spotted the P-22 from the roof of his home in the Hollywood Hills.
Because of the P-22’s popularity, people wanted to help the mountain lion — and others like it — get around areas beyond the busy, six-lane Los Angeles 101 Freeway. The idea of a wildlife bridge was gaining interest, but financing it was another issue.
So Pratt, who feels most comfortable outside in casual clothes and hiking boots, found herself in opulent Bel Air mansions, soliciting endowments.
Donations poured in from celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio, Rainn Wilson, Barbra Streisand and David Crosby — but also from residents of Watts in South Los Angeles.
Pratt explained that Watts residents see P-22 as a “social justice champion.”
“He is someone who has also been affected by the injustice of putting highways through communities,” she said. “whether you [living in] Beverly Hills, whether you are [living in] Watts, we’re all coming together about wildlife.
Between 300,000 and 400,000 cars a day will pass under the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Trail when it opens in two years.
The crossing includes specially designed acoustic walls, in addition to natural sound barriers made of tall trees and lush plantations. Everything is designed to filter out highway noise, since most animals get scared and turn around if the road is too noisy.
Courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation
A view of the completed Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Trail
Engineers also take into account animals’ fear of bright lights.
“All the lights from those headlights are a deterrent to wildlife,” Pratt explained. “We actually design light barriers — not just on the crossing but on the approach to it — so they don’t get scared and turn around, and that’s what happens.”
Wildlife Crossing is a public-private project, led by the National Wildlife Federation in collaboration with the California Department of Transportation. Nearly half of the $100 million cost was funded by private donations, including $26 million from philanthropist Wallis Annenberg, whose contribution was instrumental in moving the project forward.
For 20 years, the National Park Service has researched exactly where the highway bridge should pass. They looked for the busiest part of the highway, an area they knew most animals wouldn’t cross without this bridge.
“You can’t pay me a million dollars to run down this road,” Pratt said. “This highway is so big, noisy, noisy, there are so many lights…and the animals don’t even try.”
Wildlife crossings were first established in France in the 1950s. They are used throughout Europe, and are especially popular in the Netherlands.
A wildlife bridge – “ecopont” in French – in Brignoles, France.
Wildlife Corridors has worked with animals that are not considered particularly intelligent.
When car accidents were blamed for a decline in koala numbers in Queensland, Australia, engineers created a series of tunnels and bridges to help them avoid busy roads.
But Australian wildlife officials expected koalas – famous for lounging in trees and sipping eucalyptus – would not spot them. So, the same wildlife officials were surprised when it took less than three weeks for the koalas to start using it regularly.
In Canada, a series of wildlife bridges and tunnels in Banff National Park have proven to be very successful. Wildlife trails pass over and under the giant Trans-Canada Highway, which divides the park in half.
Dozens of large animals use this system, including grizzly bears, black bears, moose, elk, and cougars. The system is credited with helping grizzly bears maintain their populations by providing access to their mates on both sides of the park.
That’s exactly what should happen on the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Corridor, where the highway bisects the habitat of local cougars.
Between 1 and 2 million large animals die on American roads each year due to car accidents, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Pratt says that number is a “significant undercount” since those are the only incidents that are actually reported.
“And if you add the little ones — the frogs and the butterflies — we’re talking billions,” Pratt said.
She believes the crossings have broad support: “No matter what your political affiliation is, or where you live, it doesn’t matter. Most people love wildlife and don’t like to see it get hit.
There are also economic benefits, according to Pratt, since they are infrastructure projects that create jobs and have human safety benefits.
It’s an environmental problem with a simple, proven solution, and the only thing standing in the way of building it is money, Pratt says.
“There’s no bad guy. We don’t have to figure out the technology. We just need the funding.”
Besides its massive scale, the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing differs from other wildlife bridge systems around the world in that it will host an entire ecosystem above it.
A plant nursery located under the overpass is growing native fire-resistant plants that will eventually cover the crossing.
“We’ve been collecting seeds for years now to fit into the surrounding ecosystem, and this is important for climate – both wildlife and plants need options,” Pratt says.
Invasive plants fueling the fires – including the ubiquitous black mustard – will be removed from the area. Nearby power poles had to be moved to accommodate the crossing, so they will now be placed underground, which will also help with fire resistance.
“Not only will you have wildlife like mountain lions and bobcats crossing it, but you’ll have monarch butterflies laying their eggs on the milkweed above it, and you’ll have western fence lizards living above it,” Pratt said.
“Part of this project is that we’re going to restore the landscape, not just on the crossing, but around it, and get it back to how it should be. This will help with a lot of things, as well as fire risk.”
P-22 will not be around to use the wildlife crossing he helped inspire. In December 2022, just a few months after the National Wildlife Federation and the California Department of Transportation began construction on the bridge, the cougar died.
Courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation
Beth Pratt shows off her P-22 tattoo.
Although his death was heartbreaking, Pratt said he lived a long life for a mountain lion.
“But more than that, he has used his fame for good. I call him ‘the ultimate cougar celebrity influencer.’
She said his story ensured the future of other mountain lions in the region.
We owe him a debt of gratitude. He inspired the construction of the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing. We wouldn’t have it without him.”
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