California has room for cougars and affordable housing

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JP Rose

The town of Woodside entered a frenzied news cycle in February, then abruptly left it.

When the Silicon Valley suburb said it was exempt from a state housing law because the whole city is the habitat of mountain lions, criticism quickly poured in. After the state’s attorney general unequivocally declared such a policy illegal, city leaders backtracked, vowing to accept housing applications again under Senate Bill 9. .

While the controversy surrounding this tony town may be over, the conversation about how to build housing and protect wildlife continues. Can a state experiencing a housing crisis still save cougars from extinction?

It is possible if we are smart.

Woodside can stand out from other neighborhoods because of its wealth. But like many other communities across California, there are areas near downtown and existing developments that can accommodate more housing. In areas that adjoin open space or serve as residential or transient habitat, the construction of dense new developments does not make sense. And denser development under SB 9 is not permitted in the habitat of sensitive and protected species like cougars.

For decades we have built in areas without considering how it affects wildlife. Sprawling overdevelopment has helped bring us to this extinction crisis – a crisis in which the Quino checkerboard butterflies that once thrived in Southern California are now extremely rare and the iconic mountain lions suffer from inbreeding and isolation. genetic.

This sad reality has prompted some communities to act.

In Ventura County, the Board of Supervisors has passed two ordinances that strengthen the protection of wildlife corridors by setting standards for development and requiring environmental review for projects that block connectivity. Last month, a court upheld the orders after challenges from industry groups. The ordinances are the first of their kind in California and will hopefully inspire other communities to consider similar protections for wildlife trails.

It’s time to stop seeing vast swaths of open space as the best places to build. Cities and counties must direct development toward jobs and transportation hubs to meet the need for affordable housing. Focusing on wildlife-friendly infill development and building, not the outdoors, is the thoughtful way to grow.

Facilities should be designed or upgraded to meet the needs of wildlife. This means reducing nighttime lighting that affects migrating birds, building wildlife crossings on roads to accommodate migrating newts, or planting native plants to support native pollinators.

When my colleagues at the Center for Biological Diversity and I petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to list southern California and central coast cougars as an endangered species, we were not proposing to ban development. throughout the state.

Instead, we wanted state officials to help these endangered cats by building wildlife crossings, banning the use of rat poison, and considering how new developments affect connectivity. We hope that when the state commission takes a vote later this year, cougars get the permanent protections they deserve.

Woodside officials who considered their town a habitat for mountain lions made a good point. Habitat, after all, can be any place animals seek shelter, find food, or cross.

The popularity of home security cameras has given us images of bobcats, coyotes and cougars near our doors – reminders that we built our homes on their territory. If you’ve ever seen an Anna’s Hummingbird humming or heard Pacific Chorus Frogs sing, then you’ve been in wildlife habitat.

California’s rich biodiversity must be protected not only in low-density suburbs, but also in major cities.

Los Angeles will soon consider an ordinance to preserve open space between the 101 and 405 freeways in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains, where lightly developed, low-density areas serve as important wildlife habitat and connectivity areas. . If passed, the city’s first wildlife ordinance would not only help sensitive species pushed back by development, but also protect the entire region by reducing the risk of wildfires.

As we witness an extinction crisis of this magnitude, it may seem obvious to adopt land use policies that take into account wildlife movements. But unfortunately, some communities have been slow to act. Let’s be smarter about where and how we build. By recognizing that we live in wildlife habitat and can co-exist with our wild neighbors, we can chart a sustainable course.

JP Rose is senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity.

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