It was just after midnight on April 21 when the radio collar of P-97, an eighteen-month-old cougar, sent out its last signal. P-97 had only recently separated from its mother and headed east into the Santa Monica Mountains in search of territory to call his own. (The “P” stands for cougar; the number, 97, indicates how many cougars the National Park Service had noticed when it received the designation.) That night, the P-97 reached highway 405, where the Malibu and Topanga park ends, and the Westside Los Angeles residential areas of Brentwood, Bel Air, and Westwood begin. His body was reported to the California Highway Patrol, on the south side of 405, near the exit to the Getty Center, around 1 a.m. His radio collar was missing; his corpse was identified by an ear tag at the West Los Angeles Animal Shelter. Local news outlets broadcast rolled-up images of the black pads of his stilled front paws, a few traces of blood visible on the road behind them.
The next day, a group of nature lovers and dignitaries gathered in a white wedding tent in the suburb of Agoura Hills. The scent of sage smoke wafted over the gathered crowd as a moment of silence was held for P-97, and for all the other mountain lions who perished trying to cross the region’s highways: P-32, which successfully the 101 crossed to die crossing I-5, in 2015; P-61, which successfully crossed ten lanes of the 405 at Sepulveda Pass, but was killed in 2019 trying to make a return trip; P-104, who was killed in a hit-and-run on the Pacific Coast Highway in March; and more than a dozen others since the National Park Service began tracking the population 20 years ago. The occasion of the meeting was a proposed solution: the groundbreaking on the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, a bridge that will be constructed with native flora and span the 101 and provide safe passage for cougars and other wildlife enclosed by the highways that surround the Santa Monica Mountains; the bridge will lead animals into the wild space and genetic diversity of the Simi Hills, and into the expanse of Los Padres National Forest beyond, and vice versa. When completed – currently planned for 2025 – it will be the largest urban nature bridge of its kind in the world, and it is intended to serve as a model for other such projects.
It was Earth Day; it had rained the night before and the sky was a brilliant blue over Liberty Canyon, the crossing site, whose hills were covered with mustard yellow flowers. The crossing is two hundred feet long and one hundred and sixty-five feet wide; the goal of the campaign to raise money is more than one hundred million dollars. It’s funded in part by private donors, but construction requires the coordination of a wide variety of government agencies: Under the tent, CalTrans officials mixed with Fish and Wildlife agents and representatives from two state conservation agencies, and National Park Service watchmen stood around in uniform , chatting with those whose dermatology suggested their place in the donor class.
The most famous mountain lion in Los Angeles is P-22, first captured on camera more than a decade ago by a wildlife biologist in Griffith Park. To reach the park from its likely birthplace, in the Santa Monica Mountains, P-22 successfully crossed 405 and 101, perilous passages that effectively left it stranded by a ring of highways of its kind. As Dana Goodyear wrote in this magazine, in 2017: “A lion alone, P-22 relives the classic science fiction tale of the protagonist who wakes up to discover that he is the last of its kind.” Griffith Park is only a fraction of a mountain lion’s normal territory, but the easy access to mule deer apparently made up for the lack of females. Shortly after it was first spotted there, biologists fitted the P-22 with a radio collar, signaling that it was in the prime of its life, settling in its little corner of Los Angeles. Over the past decade, he’s popped up regularly in Griffith Park, surprising neighbors, invariably describing themselves as taking a second look at “a really big dog”; frighten contractors, such as those who encountered him in the crawl space of a house in Los Feliz; almost certainly killing a koala bear at the Los Angeles Zoo; and appear on camera in front of the Hollywood sign, in a shot taken by a National Geographic photographer. On home security cameras in certain areas of LA, he is a fleeting and ghostly presence, passing propane grills and jumping fences. In March, witnesses saw him strolling through Silver Lake, the farthest south where he has been sighted. At twelve or thirteen years old, he is approaching the end of his natural life, a celebrity but also a symbol of pathos.
If P-22 were more like us, he’d take comfort in his influencer status: Since raising money for wildlife crossings in 2014, he’s been the face of the campaign. In the groundbreaking photos, visitors snapped photos next to cardboard cutouts of the P-22 and wore T-shirts that read “P-22 is my Homeboy.” A Watts rapper named Warren Dickson performed a song called “We are One”. (“Have you ever heard the story / of P-22 and its journey? / Had to struggle like me.”) The master of ceremonies was Beth Pratt, a regional executive director with the National Wildlife Federation, who had led the effort for the nineties. million dollars needed to build the crossing. (California is home to not only mountain lions, but about a quarter of America’s billionaires.) Since 2016, Pratt has made an annual pilgrimage in which she walked the P-22’s fifty miles of travel wearing a radio collar, wearing a stuffed likeness of a mountain lion and a cardboard cutout of P-22 strapped to her back. (She used pedestrian bridges to cross the highways.) She has a tattoo of P-22 on one arm, and for the big Earth Day event, she wore an extraordinary blue sweater with his face looming over a pattern of cars, lanes of traffic, and the words “SAVE LA’S COUGARS.”
It is possible to live in a city like New York and understand the destruction of the natural environment mostly in abstract terms. In Los Angeles, where forest fires anger, water use is limited and the death of mountain lions makes the news, such devastation feels closer. The wildlife corridor represents more than forty years of conservation, including decades of negotiations to acquire land on either side of the highway. The site of the crossing has been designated a critical wildlife bottleneck since 1990, and biologists have used collars to track bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes and pumas, to document the effects of low genetic diversity caused by roadblocks. Further research found that the genetic gap was not limited to large carnivores, but also included smaller animals, such as a bird called the wrentit and the western fence lizard. In an area known for its luxury homes in gated communities, the bridge’s site is the only 1,600 feet of protected land on both sides of the highway.
Typically, human interventions to protect the movement of animals are relatively modest concessions to development. Along a controversial railway linking the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya, a wildlife migration corridor would have been cut had it not been for six underpasses used by elephants and other fauna – although researchers have found that some animals , including hippos and giraffes, have avoided these passages. There are reindeer viaducts for grazing herds in Sweden; a wooded bridge for colugos, pangolins and nearly seventy other species in Singapore; special lanes for turtles on Japanese railways; rope crossings for animals such as sugar gliders and possums in Australia; and a “highway” of flowers and green roofs for bees in Oslo, Norway. Perhaps the most extensive network of crosswalks in the world is located in Banff National Park, in Alberta, Canada; it includes six overpasses, thirty-eight underpasses, and fencing to divert wildlife away from the road. By the time of its twentieth birthday, in 2017, biologists had recorded more than two hundred thousand crosses between various animals, including lynx, beaver and toads; since the network was installed, vehicle crash fatalities for moose in the sections of the highway with intersections have become almost non-existent.