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Wildlife district: City Hall aims to save the big cats in LA’s metropolis

Los Angeles and Mumbai are the only two metropolises in the world where big cats — mountain lions and leopards respectively — live in dense urban areas.

That co-existence, scientists say, puts wildlife at risk. Only this year, four mountain lions have been struck and killed by cars in a study underway by the National Park Service in and around the Santa Monica Mountains north of Los Angeles.

A 2016 study by UCLA and the National Park Service found that the mountain lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains faces a steep decline and possible extinction in the near future.

“We don’t have regulations in effect that ensure that woodlands aren’t destroyed,” said Jamie Hall, a land-use attorney and vice president of the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council, a neighborhood that would be fall within the wildlife district if approved by city leaders.

“Animals need woodlands and other natural features in order to survive and thrive here in Los Angeles,” Hall said.

P-65, an adult, female mountain lion was about five years old when found dead in the Santa Monica Mountains. It was the first mountain lion in 20 years of study to die of mange, reported the U.S. National Park Service. (photo courtesy of the NPS).

The proposed wildlife district aimed at saving mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, deer and other wildlife, and balancing their existence with development, will be considered by the Los Angeles Planning Commission on Thursday, Dec. 8. The plan, if approved at the commission level, would then go to the L.A. City Council.

The proposed district would protect wildlife in the hills between Griffith Park and the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. Despite the larger region’s density, Southern California is named on a list of 25 biodiversity hotspots with a high number of species that occur nowhere else in the world.

“This is an attempt to have some minimal set of regulations to ensure that there’s an appropriate balance between development and ensuring that the natural world can continue to thrive,” Hall said. “ I think it’s long overdue, decades overdue.”

Los Angeles is not the only city trying to balance development and wildlife.

Other regions are pursuing similar concepts to address wildlife connectivity in urban settings. The recently adopted Ventura County Habitat Connectivity and Wildlife Corridor has mapped out wildlife corridors throughout Ventura County and developed regulations to protect habitat connectivity and wildlife movement corridors within the non-coastal areas. An effort in Vermont dubbed Special Features Overlay zones is attempting to protect ecological resources used by deer, stretching across wetlands, meadowlands, steep slopes and forested areas.

The recently passed Florida Wildlife Corridor Act has designated a network of green space for wildlife stretching across 18 million acres. The law was adopted in response to the risk of extinction facing the Florida panther, whose genetic diversity reached critical level in the 1990s due to inbreeding.

Experts who conducted the 2016 UCLA study said the near-extinction of Florida panthers can be “a cautionary tale” for regions like Los Angeles.

“The Santa Monica Mountains population, along with the one in the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County, has the lowest genetic diversity documented for mountain lions aside from Florida panthers,” wrote lead author Dr. John Benson, a wildlife ecologist with the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science at UCLA.

Some of the efforts to protect the Southern California mountain lion population include building the $87 million Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing over the 101 Freeway near Agoura Hills. It will be the world’s largest wildlife crossing, allowing mountain lions to safely cross the busy freeway once completed in 2025.

Homeowner Mindy Mann, who lives in Benedict Canyon and whose home would be within the boundaries of the proposed wildlife district, said she moved to the neighborhood to be closer to nature and wildlife and she worried it all could be lost without a proper set of regulations.

“We need the trees for our canopy. We need them for our birds. We need them for our physical and mental health,” said Mann, who is also part of TreePeople, an educational and training environmental advocacy group. Mann added that the proposed ordinance would reach “a very good balance” protecting trees and wildlife.

In 2014, Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz launched this effort, authoring a motion intended to balance wildlife habitat with private property development,. He argued that the proposed district would save mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, deer and other animals threatened by freeways and development. Since then, Koretz’s staff has worked with city planners, scientists and biologists to refine the proposed plan.

Under the ordinance, new homes built within the wildlife district — and additions to existing homes — would follow rules for size, height, lighting, windows, landscaping and fencing. The district contains 23,000 acres between Ventura Boulevard to the north, Sunset Boulevard to the south, the 101 Freeway to the east and the 405 Freeway to the west. It includes the Hollywood Hills and parts of Bel Air, Sherman Oaks and Studio City.

The proposed rules are aimed at residential zones in these desirable and pricey hills that include a scattering of R1 zoned single-family homes but are dominated by RE15, RE20, and RE40 zoning — sprawling, multi-acre, single-family properties in “residential estate zones.”

Current homeowners in the proposed wildlife district won’t be subject to the new regulations unless they “initiate an addition or a major exterior remodel of their house,” said Dylan Sittig, the senior planning deputy for Councilmember Koretz.

New construction of more than 500 square feet, including additions to an existing home, would be subject to the new regulations. If a homeowner wanted to build a granny flat or an ADU, or add floor area to their home of 500 square feet or more, the wildlife district rules would apply — but only to the new 500-square-foot-plus construction, Sittig notes.

Under the plan, future fences must be wildlife-friendly to “avoid any sort of injury to animals as they may be passing through” the area. Sittig said some people worried that the proposed wildlife district rules “don’t allow for security, and that’s really not true.” Only new fencing would be subject to the rule, prohibiting barbed wire, spikes, sharp glass, and other features that could injure an animal as it passes through a property.

Construction of new homes, and major exterior remodeling of existing homes, would be subject to a new window regulation: a  developer or homeowner will be required to use UV reflective glass on large windows to prevent bird injuries or deaths when they fly into glass expanses that look like open air.

New tree-planting requirements would kick in for each 1,000 square feet of new floor area that a homeowner or developer adds to an existing house. For each 1,000 square feet added, a homeowner or developer would be required to plant at least one native tree.

And if a developer or homeowner removes an existing tree, which are often more than 30 years old in the proposed wildlife district, they must plant two new replacement trees, Sittig said, noting that the area’s mature trees “provide habitat as well as a food source for wildlife.”

More details about the wildlife ordinance are available on the city planning website.

The L.A. Planning Commission will start its discussion on the Los Angeles Wildlife Ordinance on Thursday, Dec. 8. at 8:30 a.m. The meeting presentation will be available here.



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