Kill the Cougar

Puma concolor: more commonly known as mountain lion, cougar, puma or really big cat. In Orange County, sightings of this normally reclusive feline are on the rise. Recently, several hikers, runners and bikers have seen two lions—one near Blue Jay Campground off Ortega Highway, another on Santiago Canyon Trail—raising concerns that contact between humans and lions is increasing and could lead to an attack like the one in January that left one mountain biker dead and another severely mauled in Whiting Ranch. Although the rogue lion responsible was subsequently killed, some fear further violent encounters are inevitable, especially as prime lion habitat continues to shrink.

Now the humans have a champion. In a bold move, the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) has unveiled proposals for a 16-mile toll road extension—innocuously named Foothill-South Toll Road—that would take the fight to the lions.

The TCA's massive 3,200-page environmental impact report (EIR) stretches 5.5 feet—ironically, about the length of an adult female mountain lion, measured from tip to tail, when smeared across asphalt. The EIR outlines proposed routes for the toll road and the environmental havoc each option would precipitate. Minute in detail and acronym-laden, the EIR reads like a military operation, and its impact would be nearly as effective.

The report outlines six possible routes, but three are noteworthy for their destructive brilliance. If implemented, lead elements of TCA's mechanized construction battalion would be unleashed. Rumbling south, they would bulldoze, rend, obliterate and pave a path from the toll road's current terminus at Oso Parkway to a ramp on Interstate 5 near San Clemente. Along the way, the new toll road would slice through valuable open space, including the Donna O'Neill Land Conservancy and southern portions of Ronald W. Caspers Regional Park—both prime cougar habitat—before eventually connecting to the interstate at San Onofre State Beach, California's second-most-visited park, home to world-famous Trestles Beach and the last pocket of steelhead trout south of Malibu Creek.

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The TCA claims the toll road is needed to relieve traffic congestion on Interstate 5, projected to explode over the next two decades from 126,000 to 201,000 weekday trips. This astronomical increase assumes the approval and completion of massive development in Rancho Mission Viejo (RMV). Although the TCA's projections rely on the county's adopted regional forecast of 21,000 homes, RMV's landowner is currently proposing to bury this pristine open space under a more modest 14,000 homes and 5 million square feet of commercial space.

What's missing from the report is this: as with the natural world, the Foothill South Toll Road and RMV are locked in a symbiotic relationship; each needs the other to survive. No toll road, no access to RMV; no fees derived from RMV, no toll-road financing.

But would TCA's plan prove effective against mountain lions? Paul Beier seems to think so. The professor of wildlife ecology and conservation biology at Northern Arizona University served as the project leader for the Santa Ana Mountains Cougar Study (1988-1993). Having studied cougar populations in Southern California and the Santa Ana Mountains for years, Beier says, "Anything west of the road will be rendered unusable for mountain lions."

The toll road would be an environmental Berlin Wall, a barrier to dispersal and immigration, both vital to maintaining a healthy, genetically diverse cougar population. Equally destructive would be development enabled by the toll road—not only Rancho Mission Viejo, but also other projects that would sprout up along the new transportation artery, gobbling up critical open space.

In the end, it may be questionable whether the toll road and resulting development would reduce or add to traffic woes, but their efficacy at killing cougars can hardly be disputed. As the TCA proudly boasts in its EIR, "Habitat fragmentation primarily due to urbanization is irreversible."

Given the scope of the onslaught, the future of the Santa Ana cougar population, numbering roughly 20 individuals, would be seriously threatened. Already reeling from increased urbanization and the reduction of their home range, the toll road could be the final step in a path toward extinction.

"It's an abomination," Beier said. Which, roughly translated, is a good thing if your goal is to eradicate puma concolor.

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