Will Los Angeles bring its cougars back from the brink?

  • National Park Service biologist Jeff Sikich carries a tranquilized young male mountain lion back to a team waiting to attach a GPS tracking collar to the animal in the Santa Monica Mountains, in late 2012.

    Al Seib/ © 2012 Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission.
  • A young unnamed lion discovered in a Santa Monica office park in May 2012. The animal, killed by police, was later revealed to have DNA unique among the region's cougars.

    Courtesy Santa Monica Police Department
  • The February 2012, camera trap image that proved P-22's residency in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, near Hollywood. Boxed in by the city, it is unlikely that P-22 will find a mate.

    Courtesy Griffith Park Connectivity Study

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.

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