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National Park Service wildlife ecologist Seth Riley overlooking the site of the proposed land bridge over the US-101 freeway near Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills, a Los Angeles suburb. - 

Can a major carnivore live—and thrive—in a megacity? That’s the question in Los Angeles, where a population of about a dozen mountain lions live on the city’s outskirts.

But with the lions essentially isolated by freeways, no lions can get in — or out. At least 12 have died trying to do so since 2002. But soon they may not have to. That’s because a land bridge project could connect L.A.’s cats to neighboring lion populations. The only problem? The cost. As high as $50 million. Which begs the question: How much is L.A. willing to pay to save these animals? And what’s the value of having wildlife on the doorstep of America’s second-largest city? 

It’s really a question of how  we feel about wild places and what we want to live near—can you put a price tag on that? It's  relevant issue overlooking the  freeway in Agoura Hills, a Los Angeles suburb.

“We’re looking at 101, one of the busiest freeways in the world," said Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service. "We know it’s a major barrier to connectivity for all kinds of wildlife ... It’s an amazing thing, I think, that we still have mountain lions in Los Angeles.”

For the past 13 years, he’s led a study on the lions in the Santa Monica Mountains, the 275-square-mile range running from the Pacific through downtown LA. Freeways keep fresh blood from coming in, and younger lions can’t establish new territory, or find mates. That leads to inbreeding, and ultimately infertility and death for this population — unless there’s a way out.

“Without increasing connectivity and basically building wildlife crossings, like a tunnel or this overpass, without increasing wildlife connectivity, I think the mountain lions are definitely going to be lost. It’ll just be a question of in how long,” Riley said. 

Riley tracks mountain lions via high-frequency radio collars.

Riley tracks mountain lions via high-frequency radio collars. 

The crossing would create a direct path between neighboring mountains, a land bridge that other animals and even hikers can use. An animal crossing on this scale—over a 10-lane freeway—has never been done. It’s a first, according to the National Park Service. But California state senators, even Caltrans, the state’s transportation agency, are all supportive. The one thing they haven’t agreed on is just where the construction money will come from. And they’re going to need quite a bit: upwards of $50 million.

“So, it’s certainly a lot, although in the context of what it costs to do transportation projects, it’s actually not all that much,"  Riley said. "So I think people care enough and are interested enough that it will happen, but we’ll see.”

Beth Pratt-Bergstrom is the California director for the National Wildlife Federation. She’s in charge of raising money — and very optimistic that she can do it. “We have a goal of $10 million by 2017, and then the remainder by the summer of 2019, with shovel ready, ready to begin construction by 2020,” she said. 

She's so optimistic that she got a mountain lion tattooed on her left bicep.  She holds an MBA and has two decades of experience raising money for wildlife and wild places. Her vision is to get federal and private dollars, like the tens of millions raised for the Everglades and the Great Lakes.

“I think we owe it to these mountain lions, I think we owe it to all wildlife, and I think it’s also a great chance for Los Angeles — (which) as we know has long been tagged as the environmental villain in the world, rightly or wrongly — to show real leadership around the world," she said. 

There’s still a long way to go — so far, Pratt-Bergstrom has only raised $1.1 million. Federal grants take time to get. That’s why she’s hoping L.A.’s generous donors follow the example of Larry Ellison, who recently donated $50 million to build an animal sanctuary in Silicon Valley. The lions are under pressure—if even one male dies in the interim, the whole Santa Monica population is in jeopardy. But if the bridge gets built in time, there’s a good chance Los Angeles will keep mountain lions in its backyard.