Will Los Angeles bring its cougars back from the brink?

by Judith Lewis Mernit

In fall of 2011, biologists Dan Cooper and Miguel Ordeñana installed 13 remote cameras in a 4,000-acre patch of wild hills known as Griffith Park, above Los Angeles, Calif. Each month, they combed through predictable images of a near-urban ecosystem: Coyotes marking, bobcats stalking, deer browsing the chaparral. One evening last March, however, they got a shock: A photo captured at 9:15 p.m. on Feb. 12 showed a large cat-like creature  ambling along a trail above the iconic Hollywood sign. There could be no doubt: It was a mountain lion.

Until that moment, the only surprising sight had been the occasional homeless person. "It was like finding Bigfoot," Cooper says. "The difference being that Bigfoot doesn't exist, so you couldn't really hope for it."

Griffith Park is, technically, part of the Santa Monica Mountains, which begin in slide-prone bluffs along the Southern California coast, rise to 3,000 feet and then taper off until they disappear at the Los Angeles River, 45 miles inland. The mountains, state parks, open space preserves and a recreation area managed by the National Park Service form a patchwork ecosystem that functions, albeit in a strangled way, as it has for thousands of years, and not least because the cougar has persisted here as a native predator. Only eight to 10 lions remain in the mountain range, all in the western reaches. But they still play a key role managing deer and coyote. Cooper, who monitors the park on behalf of local neighborhood groups, was gratified to have documented the first evidence of a mountain lion so far east, on this "very constricted peninsula of habitat" in the city.

Cooper called National Park Service biologist Jeff Sikich, who leads a research team studying the Santa Monica lions. Sikich managed to capture the lion, take blood samples and fit it with a GPS collar. A genetics lab at the University of California at Los Angeles determined that it had indeed been born in the Santa Monicas. The biologists named it P-22 -- the 22nd puma Park Service researchers had collared since their study began in 2002.

Puma concolor, alternately called the mountain lion, puma or cougar, is not an urban predator; it has not adapted, like the coyote or the raven, to the perilous bounty of cohabitation with humans. That P-22 made it to the Hollywood Hills is close to a miracle. A 3-year-old, 110-pound male, the lion was probably looking for his own home territory to avoid a turf battle with another male lion, the most common cause of death among his kind here. Cooper surmises that he followed a deer into the park, first crossing one freeway screaming with traffic and negotiating his way through golf courses, swimming pools and clusters of six-bedroom homes with ocean views.

Once he arrived east, he stayed. "We've learned that the whole park is its territory," Cooper says. But it's a tiny, lonely one. P-22 may find enough meals in the park's other wildlife. What he won't do is find a mate. "Where the lion can go from here," Cooper says, "that's really an open question."

It's not just a question that applies to P-22. The Santa Monica Mountains' big cats die in all kinds of ways: on freeways, ingesting rat poison, shot by poachers. But there is no greater threat to their survival than the simple fact that they are imprisoned where they're born. Any route out can be deadly for an individual lion. No way out will ultimately be deadly for them all.

When I meet Jeff Sikich one August morning on a Malibu road in the heart of the mountains, I think they've sent the wrong guy. The 37-year-old looks too young to be the world-renowned expert I've read about. Only when he takes off his park-ranger cadet cap do I notice a few convincing flecks of gray in his close-cut hair. He is tall, thin, taciturn and focused. When I ask him whether it's a bother having journalists tag along during his work, he answers promptly: "Yes."

Sikich travels frequently to Peru to study the pumas of the Andes; he recently taught South African biologists his darting techniques. But most of his work is more mundane: trudging up hills, radio in hand, waving a duct-taped antenna in the air and listening for beeps from a box. Sometimes he walks dirt trails or bushwhacks through the sage and poison oak to get at his target. Other times he drives up steep roads in suburban neighborhoods, startling their elderly residents. ("Is he a police officer?" one freshly coiffed octogenarian in smart green sandals asks me. "No," I assure her. "He's a biologist.")

The beeps come in different frequencies to distinguish individual lions. Listening is exacting work: Even on Sandstone Peak -- at 3,111 feet, the mountains' highest point -- lawn mowers, weed whackers and boats at sea all interfere with the pings Sikich is looking for, which emanate from a collared mother and her two four-month-old kittens. When Sikich hears them, he pencils in the time and GPS coordinates on a ledger.

It's early still; fog from the ocean settles in the gaps between the green-and-dun mountains. "Mom's been here the past two nights," Sikich says, pointing inland to a small granite escarpment. "She probably made a deer kill, buried it, then went back and grabbed the kittens who were over on the other side of that ridge."

Mom is P-19, the lone survivor of four born in May 2010; her kittens arrived last April. Biologists thought it a hopeful sign that P-19 would whelp so young, right on schedule; it meant she had food. But the kittens' blood tests were less encouraging; they showed P-19 had mated with P-12, an itinerant male from a larger habitat to the north. P-12 had fathered two litters of kittens before. Among them was P-19.

The father-daughter tryst was the second instance of first-order inbreeding documented among the Santa Monica Mountains' puma population. The lions are now at risk for what biologists call "inbreeding depression" -- the same fate that befell a puma subspecies, the Florida panther, 20 years ago.

"They were going extinct," says Robert Wayne, the evolutionary biologist who oversees the DNA-testing lab at UCLA. "They had undescended testes, holes in their hearts, defective sperm." The Florida population only survived because they were, as Wayne puts it, "genetically rescued" in 1995 with the release of eight female panthers imported from Texas. Only the offspring of the imports have thrived.

The isolated cougars of the Santa Monicas don't need such a dramatic solution; other genetic strains roam not far away.  Just 15 miles north of where P-19 is raising her kittens, space yawns open in the Santa Susana Mountains, which link to hundreds of square miles of contiguous habitat in the Los Padres National Forest. But to move that direction, animals have to cross all eight lanes of the 101 Freeway, which connects the cities of Los Angeles and Ventura.

Sikich takes me to a place on the 101 where there's natural habitat on both sides, the aptly named Liberty Canyon. From the north, the canyon funnels wildlife onto a lightly used road under the freeway; P-12 crossed here. But an animal making its way down the slope south of the freeway, a narrow channel of green through the housing tracts, would have to brave a vacant three-story office building to find that route. "We've had animals turn around here," Sikich says. "The ones that risk the freeway usually end up dead."

Biologists, wildlife advocates and the California Department of Transportation have long lobbied for an underpass here whose entrance would make sense to wildlife. It would cost $10 million, but it would offer a safe option for animals compelled to migrate north. It might have lured P-22 toward more promising lands than Griffith Park. And it might have opened up a route for the unnamed young lion that, on May 22, tested his boundaries and found himself stranded in a city.

That Tuesday morning, janitor Rogelio Rodriguez showed up for his pre-dawn shift at a downtown Santa Monica office building and heard a strange scratching sound. When he went to investigate, he saw a fawn-colored feline, six feet long and half again as tall, pawing on a wall just a few feet away. The animal turned around and saw Rodriguez, then ran past him into a courtyard. Rodriguez called the police.

Later blood tests revealed the lion came from the Santa Monicas. A young male, not quite 2 years old, he had likely wandered down during the night, crossing three miles of backyards or following the beach. He was now more trapped than when he started.

Wildlife agents first tried darting the lion, but the drug didn't take. Instead, the animal ran. Glass walls eight-feet high surround that courtyard, "but the thinking was that if he could get in, he could get out into the street," says assistant chief of California Fish and Wildlife Dan Sforza; pumas can spring to the top of 15-foot cliffs. Local police officers tried to hold the animal back with pepper spray, but when "he came toward the glass, the police shot him."

Bystanders were horrified. Blogs and comments overflowed with protests. But Seth Riley, the principal investigator on the Park Service study, says that the saddest part of the story came later, with the lion's DNA tests. "He had some unique genetic markers not seen in our other Santa Monica lions," he laments. "And he never got to pass them on."

Last year, the California Department of Transportation was turned down for a federal grant to fund the Liberty Canyon underpass. Riley insists the cost is justified. "These mountain lions are the ultimate challenge for conservation," he says. "If the system is able to sustain large carnivores, it says something good about the way we're able to conserve it." If it's not, the fragment of wilderness known as the Santa Monica Mountains will devolve into another large urban park.

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