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Updated: Community rallies for a wildlife crossing to save Santa Monica mountain lions

Updated 5:16 p.m. Hundreds of people gathered at Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills on Friday morning for the public kickoff of the "Save L.A. Cougars" campaign. The $4 million campaign is meant to raise money to fund planning a wildlife crossing across the 101 Freeway into the Santa Monica Mountains. 

Several in the crowd carried signs showing support for a bridge crossing - one that advocates hope will be the largest of its kind in the country. 

"I especially wanted to come, because I love all the wildlife here, and I’m really glad that they’re thinking of making a bridge for the wildlife," said 13-year-old Melia Prince, who attended with her class.

Beth Pratt, California director of the National Wildlife Federation, which is partnering on the campaign, said that they have raised more than $20,000 since the campaign began earlier this week. Pratt said that they hope to raise the funds within the next six months, in order to keep the project shovel-ready by 2018. 

State Senator Fran Pavley told the crowd that support from multiple sources would be needed during upcoming months. 

"We're going to need all our help, not only locally, state, but nationally; and some people that can write those big checks frankly," Pavley said. 

7:04 a.m. Wildlife activists are scheduled to rally Friday morning for a wildlife crossing to be built across the 101 Freeway near the Santa Monica Mountains.

The gathering site is near Liberty Canyon, a location that scientists have identified as an ideal spot for animals to cross the busy freeway, because natural areas exist on both sides. An effective crossing would allow for animals to pass between the Santa Monica mountains and the Simi Hills to the north.

Proposals for a crossing at Liberty Canyon have been made for years, but calls were renewed last year after a male mountain lion was killed while attempting to cross the 101 Freeway.

Officials with the National Wildlife Federation, which is organizing the rally, said they are hoping to capitalize on the momentum of recent public interest.

 “We need to figure out ways to live in harmony with nature, and we have responsibility to these incredible species that we live with in that the way in which we live, and the way we design things do have impacts. We should find ways to minimize those impacts,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

National Park Service officials said that they know of 11 instances of mountain lions being killed by vehicular collisions, ranging from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Los Padres National Forest during the past 12 years. Another adult male lion was killed last week while attempting to cross the 2 Freeway in Glendale

Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service, said that busy roads provide more danger to animal populations than just deadly collisions.

 “[The] 101 is much more of an issue as a barrier than as a source of mortality,” Riley said. “But at the same time, it is really unfortunate when animals get hit, because there are so few.”

A recent study Riley authored showed that the mountain lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains has among the lowest genetic diversity in the Western United States. Inbred cubs were recently born as the result of a father mating with his daughter.

A prior proposal estimated that installing a tunnel crossing underneath the 101 Freeway would cost about $10 million. A lot of public support has been for a bridge-style crossing over the busy freeway. That type of crossing is expected to be more expensive.

Last week, Caltrans learned it would not receive a federal grant for $2 million to provide funds for planning a crossing at Liberty Canyon. Advocates have begun private fundraising for the effort.

O'Mara said that a few thousand dollars have already been raised to fund planning the crossing and that his organization is hoping to secure government grants to aid the effort.

"What we're looking at right now is how do we combine some government money as well as some private money to get us through this first phase as quickly as possible, so that when other dollars are available, you're ready to go to construction, as opposed to starting from square one a few years from now," O'Mara said.

Beth Pratt, California director of the National Wildlife Federation, said at a private fundraising dinner the evening before the rally that her organization is hoping to organize efforts that will raise $2 million dollars for the planning and an additional $2 million to continue funding the mountain lion research being performed by the National Park Service scientists. 

"This is a long haul project - getting the short term momentum to do the fundraising for the $4 million campaign and the longterm momentum to see this through," said Pratt. "It's aggressive, but we're aiming to be shovel ready by 2018, so we're going to do everything we can to get to that."