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Know the West

When a rare puma dies during a government shutdown, who do you call?


Dan Cooper didn’t know about the mountain lion until the local news media called on Monday afternoon to tell him. By that time, the animal had been dead for several hours; all anyone knew was that it had been struck by a car on the 101 freeway, which cuts through the Santa Monica Mountains on the way from Los Angeles to Ventura, Calif. “I told them I didn’t have any details,” Cooper said; nonetheless, he became the go-to expert on the news story that followed, hitting the proper contextual talking points about what to do if you encounter a puma and how many of them remain here (probably 8; maybe 10).

It's not that Cooper isn’t an expert — he is. But as an independent biologist, he concentrates his work on the east side of the Santa Monicas, a place called Griffith Park, where one lone puma recently took up residence for the first time in recorded history. But the lion killed on the road came from an area far to the west, an island of habitat, bound in by development and freeways, that’s been under intense study by another group of researchers. (For more information on that research, see our March 2013 story "Will Los Angeles bring its cougars back from the brink?") But those people, the ones who have captured and collared and tracked a couple dozen of the animals since 2002, weren’t available to either reporters or their fellow biologists when the lion was killed on Monday. They couldn't even answer the phone. They work for the National Park Service.

“It drives home the point of how much the federal government is leading basic biological research in this area,” Cooper says. Especially in the Santa Monicas, where the state and universities work hand-in-hand with the NPS on everything from tracking rare plants to preserving open space. Two NPS biologists in particular, Seth Riley and Jeff Sikich, have been leading the mountain lion study, “and we’ve left it up to them because they’re the ones doing it and they’re doing it well,” Cooper says. “It puts it in relief what they do."

Puma in the Santa Monica Mountains. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

So, frustratingly and rather astonishingly, here’s all anyone knows so far: The puma died in the eastbound lane of the freeway, which means he or she probably came up from the south.  The animal was struck at a place called Liberty Canyon, which is precisely the spot where wildlife advocates and CalTrans have been lobbying for years to build an underpass. Animals can follow a canyon under the freeway from north to south here, but those that come up from the south have to navigate paved development to find that canyon. An underpass would allow animals to safely cross out of the Santa Monicas' claustrophobic range and into the vast wildlands farther north. And clearly one lion on Monday morning could have used it.

But right now, we don’t know why that cougar was trying. We don’t know if it was the young female that was caught on camera feeding on a deer in August. We don’t know if it was the young male born in June 2012 attempting to disperse — to move off into less crowded territory. “Was it radio collared? Was it a new animal?” Cooper asks. “We just don’t have any answers. And when you call the park service all you get is an answering machine."

While all eyes are focused on the shutdown, it’s difficult to keep in mind that, where care for the ecosystem is concerned, government is already being starved to the bone. You see it in the duct tape that keeps antennae attached to radios, in the aging trucks researchers pilot through remote mountains, in the exhaustion in the faces of biologists who not only struggle to stay abreast of the movements of the animals they’re studying, but have to explain those animals to pestering reporters as well.

But without their explanations, we're all at a loss. No one can quite gauge the impact of this death on a tiny population always on the brink of extirpation. “To become an expert in this ecosystem requires a lot of little conversations with experts throughout the year, all the time,” Cooper says. “Everything you know you’ve absorbed because you’ve talked to people who know a lot more than you do and they’ve been generous with their information. When those lines of communication are cut, it degrades the whole network. We really feel it.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor of High Country News.