Winston Vickers is watching an exciting and very unusual video feed from his office at UC Davis Wildlife Health Center. His team installed dozens of cameras strategically placed along the trails of mountain lions, also known as pumas, in Orange County, Southern California. As we zoom in, wait for one of these cats to approach the dead deer his four biologists have prepared as bait. They hope to lure a mountain lion and then stun it and put a GPS collar on it. Vickers, 60, is the director of the Mountain Lions Project at UC Davis and one of the most famous Puma experts in the world. “Look at those claws and those teeth!” the tall and slender biologist is enthusiastic, almost jokingly, about his encounters with cats. “They’re about the same as me, but unlike me, they’re all muscle!”
Vickers’ research has a disturbing background: Without human help, mountain lions in Southern California have little chance of survival. Los Angeles is the only metropolis in the Western world that is home to big cats. (The only other major city in the world with big wild cats is Mumbai.) But pumas are already weakened by inbreeding, as the many highways in and around Los Angeles make it nearly impossible for both new mountain lions and lions to arrive. emigration of young animals. Puma babies are already showing deformities. Younger male mountain lions are killed by older rivals because there is not enough space in the mountains for everyone.
On April 22, International Earth Day, conservationists kicked off the inauguration ceremony of a spectacular construction: the “Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing”, a wildlife bridge that is expected to cross Highway 101 at Liberty Canyon to the west. of Los Angeles. At a cost of 88 million dollars (approximately 83 million euros), the structure will be the most expensive and largest wildlife bridge in the world. “We did it!” Beth Pratt of the National Wildlife Federation shouted over the roar of traffic. “This crossing will be studied for many years as evidence that humans and wildlife can coexist.”
$ 88 million seems extreme until you do the math: In the past three years, wildlife clashes in California have cost more than $ 1 billion. In contrast, deer bridges have been shown to reduce deadly encounters with deer – by 98.5% in Utah and nearly 90% in Colorado. Fraser Shilling, co-director of the Road Ecology Center at Davis University, calculated on the planned deer bridge that “the project pays for itself simply by reducing collisions with deer.”
About a dozen mountain lions currently live in the Santa Monica Mountains and two dozen further north in Orange County. A mountain lion needs around 400 square kilometers of land. In theory, the 150,000 acres of the Santa Monica Mountains would be perfect Puma terrain. They stretch from the Hollywood Hills, where the stars live, to the Pacific coast in Malibu. They are home to coyotes, deer, foxes, lynxes, raccoons and even the strange black bear. But the area is intersected by four highways – deadly obstacles to wildlife. Each year, countless animals get lost trying to cross the highway. This is one of the reasons why the state of California and the Annenberg Foundation each contributed $ 25 million to the bridge, with foundations of Leonardo di Caprio and other alpha animals, and more than 5,000 donors worldwide funding the rest. . Major donor Wallis Annenberg said at the unveiling ceremony. “They shouldn’t have been separated in the first place.”
The only lion that has managed to cross freeways 405 and 101 unscathed is called P-22 and has lived in Griffith Park, in view of the famous Hollywood sign, for ten years. Car traffic excludes him from potential mates with whom he could produce offspring. Beth Pratt has the majestic P-22 tattooed on her upper arm and even compares “Hollywood’s loneliest bachelor” to “James Dean, a rebel in unknown territory” – although Dean famously had no trouble finding. companions.
The Mountain Lion P-22 also became the hero of an entire movement thanks to Pratt’s skilled PR. Thousands come to the “P-22 Day” that Pratt organizes every year and hike with her through her territory. “It’s about seeing the trails from the point of view of the animals. Every day from 300,000 to 350,000 cars go by, ”says Pratt. “I got up on the highway at two in the morning and even then I didn’t want to cross it.”
How are animals supposed to find the wild animal bridge once it’s finished? “We put up signs,” Pratt jokes
California is the only US state to ban mountain lion hunting thanks to an initiative started 30 years ago by William Newsom, father of current Governor Gavon Newsom. Most city dwellers accept the proximity of large predators with incredible composure, often with enthusiasm as well. “I get text messages and video of sightings almost every day,” says Pratt. P-22 was recently filmed surprising an unsuspecting woman at dawn. She climbed her fence in Beachwood Canyon before dawn, walked across her patio, and then inspected the grill. Even if the P-22 catches a poodle for dinner, as it did in the Glendale area, the city doesn’t approve of it. “It’s a risk people have to live with here,” said the responsible agency, the California Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. When the P-22 nearly died from rat poison eight years ago, the city banned residents from using the poisons.
But how are the animals supposed to find the wildlife bridge once it’s finished? “We put up signs,” Pratt jokes before getting serious again. “Liberty Canyon is like a natural funnel that narrows your options down to the last 500 meters.” From tracking the mountain lions with GPS collars, Pratt and Vickers know that many will come to the exact spot where the bridge will be built “but then they turn around because they can’t cross it.” Of course, the overpass will also look less like a bridge and more like a 50-meter-wide park, planted with plants and trees to block out the noise and lights from cars.
P-22 is the most important face of the #SaveLACougars campaign, but bridge isn’t just for him. “The entire ecosystem of the Santa Monica Mountains has been cut off,” says Pratt. “You may not think about butterflies, frogs or plants, but everyone will benefit from the bridge.” The 10-lane highways are also a challenge for birds, Pratt explains, as some bird species prefer to fly over vegetation rather than over-built areas. The bridge serves to “reduce the suffering of all animals, not just mountain lions”.
Construction is expected to be completed by 2025. P-22 has previously posted news on its Instagram and Facebook accounts (managed by Pratt) which it will see again soon. Fans of him are already posting pictures of attractive puppies and asking, “Well, is he your type?” Hip hop star Warren even dedicated a song to him, the “P-22 Song” entitled “On the Move Again”. However, the new bridge may be too late for the lone lion. Mountain lions rarely live beyond 15 years in the wild, and the P-22 is already 12. “But his bachelor is not in vain,” Pratt promises his fans. “He has no idea that his lonely existence of him is inspiring a whole movement.”