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California wildlife get their own highway crossing

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Why did the mountain lion cross the road? Well, that answer might be simpler than how it crossed the road. That's the problem that many of Southern California's big cats and coyotes and other wildlife have faced over the years as cities grew and highways expanded. California has broken ground on what's being billed as the world's largest wildlife crossing - more than 200-feet long and spanning over 10 lanes of traffic to help animals pass freely and safely themselves. Beth Pratt is regional executive director of the California National Wildlife Federation. Thanks so much for joining us.

BETH PRATT: Thanks for having me - really appreciate being here.

SIMON: Well, how does this work? Do the animals actually, like, have to push a button to stop traffic and cross or what?

PRATT: Yeah. We just put a sign up saying wildlife crossing this way. And - you know? (Laughter).

SIMON: They find it.

PRATT: You know, it's not far off. Word gets out in the animal world. And we've learned from decades of wildlife crossings what to do to help them get there, which is mainly put up fencing to sort of eliminate any other option. And we also do a lot of landscaping.

SIMON: Help us understand how this problem has grown over the years and why it becomes increasingly difficult for wildlife to get across places.

PRATT: Yeah. You know, when I was coming up in conservation 30 years ago, we - pretty much the paradigm was you put aside the Yosemite. You put aside a wildlife refuge, and you kind of create these islands of open space, and you check the box. We have space for wildlife, and you put the people in other places. We now know wildlife, large and small, need large landscape connectivity to be resilient just naturally, but especially in the faces of things like climate change, drought and fire. So what you see playing out in the Santa Monica mountains is the population of mountain lions there - they have been inbreeding themselves, likely to almost out of existence if we didn't do something because they can't get across the freeway to get dates outside their family. And we're seeing that same genetic isolation play out, though, up and down the food chain.

SIMON: Should anybody be concerned? When you talk about giving them free access, that means mountain lions are going to be climbing down from the hills and into swimming pools, which I know has been known to happen now and then.

PRATT: Actually, they already are. So Angelenos know how to live with mountain lions. P22 is under the Hollywood sign. He's strolled down Sunset Boulevard. So this crossing, actually...

SIMON: He's a - yeah, he's a celebrity in his own right at this point.

PRATT: He's the Brad Pitt of the cougar world. That's what I call him (laughter). But yeah, where mountain lions should be, they already are. It's not that we're bringing more. It's just that we're going to ensure they don't inbred themselves out of existence.

SIMON: And you'll be able to see the results almost immediately?

PRATT: I think so. They have, you know, almost 80% to 90% success rates. But I've also visited ones where literally they put it up, and the deer start using it two days later. A crossing in Washington State, the deer were trying to use it before it was even done.

SIMON: A totally personal question - do you have a tattoo?

PRATT: (Laughter) I do, yes.

SIMON: Can you tell us about it?

PRATT: Yeah. It's a tattoo of P22, the famous mountain lion. He's really been our poster puma for this campaign because he is one of the few mountain lions that actually survived crossing two of the freeways in LA, the 101 and the 405. You know, a lot of Angelenos can identify with the 405 impacting your dating life because you don't want to have to deal with the traffic. And that's what P22 symbolizes.

SIMON: Forgive me. I don't know - why the name P22? Is there a P21? Will there be a P23?

PRATT: Yeah. So P stands for puma, which is another name for mountain lion. Mountain Lions have a number of names, so it's gets confusing. Mountain lion, panther, puma - all the same animal. He was the 22nd cat tagged in the National Park Service study, and they're now up to about 104.

SIMON: Beth Pratt, regional executive director for the California National Wildlife Federation, thanks so much for being with us.

PRATT: And thanks for having me - always fun to talk cougars. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.