Mountain lions may soon have a bit more room to roam.
The Nature Conservancy, an Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit group, recently announced their purchase of a 73-acre parcel in Rainbow Canyon that could be the site of a future wildlife crossing.
When the I-15 was punched through the mountains south of what would become the city of Temecula, the then-fresh ribbon of concrete divided the mountain lion’s traditional territory into western and eastern sides, which environmentalists contend stunted the growth of a population that depends on crisscrossing a wide expanse of acreage to breed and hunt.
“The future of mountain lions and other animals in this region of Southern California depends on a safe and effective wildlife crossing to restore the link across I-15. Without it, the mountain lion population in the Santa Ana Mountains, which is already severely inbred, could disappear in the next 50 years,” said Cara Lacey, associate program director for regional planning at The Nature Conservancy, in a statement. “This purchase opens the possibility of a future wildlife crossing above or below the highway to enable a future system of crossings and allow safe passage for wildlife, removing the need for them to make the dangerous scramble across traffic, while also improving safety for people.”
If a wildlife crossing is eventually built — which is no sure thing based on the red tape associated with building near a freeway and the potential cost — the location should help the local Santa Ana population connect with the Palomar Mountain population to the east.
The nonprofit and its partners also are working to restore the Temecula Creek Bridge I-15 underpass near the city’s monument sign, which for years has been a popular way station for area transients, to give the Santa Ana mountains lions another safe spot to cross.
Local environmentalists were excited to hear the news that their efforts to save the area’s mountain lions are closer to fruition.
“We’re thrilled with the purchase,” said Pam Nelson, chair of the Temecula-based Santa Margarita group of the San Gorgonio Chapter of the Sierra Club.
“We’ve been working with The Nature Conservancy, Winston Vickers (of the University of California, Davis), the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, state and federal agencies, nonprofits and community members to help find ways to make the region south of Temecula include a wildlife crossing/corridor system. We began meeting about two years ago and have found The Nature Conservancy to be great leaders in this effort.”
A Conservancy spokeswoman said Wednesday the purchase has nothing to do with Ambient Communities’ Altair project slated for the foothills of Temecula, which spurred a coalition of environmentalists to file a lawsuit earlier this year in a bid to stop the proposed housing development because it could negatively impact the local mountain lion population.
But the Conservancy’s land may one day be linked via a crossing to the land that was purchased by Ambient as part of the Altair development agreement, 65 acres on the western side of the freeway that is pledged to the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Agency.
In the draft environmental impact report for the Altair project, which was approved by the council late last year, there was a condition that called for the developers to contribute $200,000 towards studying an I-15 wildlife crossing south of Temecula Creek.
“The need for this alternative crossing is a concept that had been discussed with the city, the (Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Agency) and the wildlife agencies at length before the draft EIR was released for public comment,” said Ambient principal Rob Honer in an email to TVD. “Once the desire for this alternative crossing was identified, we worked with the city and the RCA to obtain bids from two Caltrans approved engineers and received one proposal for $440,000…therefore, the $200,000 was proposing to fund a little less than half of the cost.”
Following the release of the draft environmental document, and two public workshops in the summer of 2016, Ambient increased the project’s commitment from $200,000 to $500,000, money that would be used to either conduct a study or acquire land that would contribute to a future wildlife crossing in this area.
Before the council considered the project, however, Vickers obtained a grant to fund the crossing study and a property owner who owned 65 acres next to the I-15 where a crossing would go offered it to Ambient.
After consultation with the city and the RCA, the 65 acres was purchased by Ambient and the land will be dedicated to the RCA for free before issuance of the project’s grading permit, Honer said. The remaining funds ($500,000 less the purchase price for the 65 acres) will be provided to the city in cash prior to issuance of the project’s grading permit and may be used pursuant to the terms in the final EIR and development agreement.
“Controlling this land and completing preliminary engineering are the first steps needed to submit the concept to larger organizations/agencies for grants to finance the crossing’s actual construction. We applaud TNC for this acquisition!” Honer said.