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The Ultimate Urban Cats

NWF is supporting research to help one of Hollywood’s most secretive stars and his mountain lion relatives survive city life

  • Anne Bolen
  • Conservation
  • Nov 17, 2014
ONE OF HOLLYWOOD'S COOLEST CATS is no party animal. Rather, the only mountain lion known to reside in Los Angeles’ popular Griffith Park is a loner. Despite sharing his home with millions of annual visitors during the past three years, just a handful of people have seen him. Further, some of the United States’ busiest highways isolate him and his feline relatives in the Santa Monica Mountains from other mountain lions—leading them to live private yet precarious and, at times, violent lives that ultimately could cause their demise.

To help mountain lions safely navigate this dense urban area, NWF launched the Save the L.A. Cougars campaign in September. The Federation is supporting the research of U.S. National Park Service (NPS) scientists tracking the cats’ movements as well as the construction of a wildlife crossing over or under one of these highways. “Carnivores are the ultimate challenge for conservation in a landscape like ours,” says NPS Ecologist Seth Riley. “They need a lot of space. If any group of animals is going to be affected by loss of habitat and fragmentation, it is carnivores.”

A month after a remote camera first photographed Griffith Park’s lion in February 2012, Riley and NPS Biologist Jeff Sikich captured and fitted the then 2-year-old cat with a GPS radio collar to follow where he moved through the park. Genetic testing revealed the young male was related to the mountain lions they had been studying in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area about 30 miles away. They have tracked 35 Puma concolor (called, among other names, mountain lions or cougars) from that population and the surrounding region, and as Griffith Park’s lion was the 22nd puma, he became known as P22.

Like any young male lion, he probably was dispersing to find his own territory. However, unlike six other males that were killed by vehicles in the recreation area, he successfully navigated two eight-lane highways, 101 and 405, before settling into his city park home. Now those freeways and residential development encircle him.

Trapped!

Male mountain lions usually have home ranges of more than 200 square miles. While P22 has been able to survive in his relatively small 10-square-mile range mainly by feeding on the park’s abundant deer supply, his urban lifestyle has not left him unscathed. Earlier this year, the NPS scientists had to recapture P22 to replace the battery in his radio collar. They found him thinner, with his ears crumpled, eyes swollen and skin scabby. He was infected by mange, caused by a parasitic mite that weakens wildlife and domestic animals. They also found rodenticide in his blood. The bobcats and coyotes that eat rodents—and on which P22 occasionally snacks—are often contaminated with rat poison.

Laurel Serieys, who worked with Riley and Sikich while a University of California–Los Angeles graduate student, found bobcats that had been exposed to rodenticide had impaired immune function, which she says, “explains their increased susceptibility to mange.” The NPS team has also found rodenticides to be prevalent in more than 90 percent of the mountain lions they’ve tested. These poisons—anticoagulants that can cause animals to bleed to death internally—have killed coyotes. In 2004, two Santa Monica mountain lions that had spent much of their time close to urban areas also died this way; both had mange. “It is upsetting to see these animals suffer from human causes,” says Sikich.



P22 also seems fated to go through life as a bachelor. While the nearest dating pool is in the Santa Monica Mountains recreation area, going back may be just too daunting, not only because of the deadly highways but also what awaits him there. The recreation area is about 250-square-miles and already supports two male lions as well as at least four females plus some of their kittens. Living in this cramped space has had deadly consequences. In their paper published in Current Biology in August, the NPS researchers reveal that of the 15 young males they tracked, five are known to have been killed by adult male competitors. One even killed his mate and offspring. In addition, males have bred with their own daughters. In 2009, one male from another population finally made it across U.S. 101 and into the recreation area, where he has fathered 15 kittens (right). However, the number of breeding animals in the Santa Monica Mountains is “not enough genetically for a viable population,” says Riley.

University of California geneticists determined that prior to this male’s appearance, severe inbreeding caused this population to have the lowest genetic diversity of any North America pumas except endangered Florida panthers. Generations of inbreeding had led to some panthers developing birth defects such as holes in their hearts and decreased sperm counts. Wild panthers had declined to less than 30 by the early 1990s. In 1995, state biologists introduced eight female Texas mountain lions into the Florida population. The influx of new genes allowed the panther population to reboot, growing to an estimated 100 to 180 today.

However, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Biologist Mark Lotz recently confirmed that this “genetic restoration … would have been for naught without the construction of wildlife underpasses and habitat protection.” The Florida Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate, has successfully advocated for and helped with the planning of more than 50 highway underpasses for panthers and other wildlife in the Sunshine State.

A Crossing for California Wildlife

During the 12 years since NPS scientists have been researching California mountain lions, 13 have been killed on highways in their study area, including three kittens earlier this year. In October 2013, a vehicle killed a young male that tried to enter the Santa Monica Mountains by crossing U.S. 101. California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has been pursuing funds to research and build a wildlife crossing over or under this highway at this very location for more than a decade. NPS recommends this spot—appropriately named Liberty Canyon—because it is one of the last places along U.S. 101 that has natural cover on each side of the highway.

This crossing could benefit a variety of wildlife. Motion-triggered cameras indicate that bobcats, coyotes, foxes and other animals occasionally use pedestrian and horseback riding trails and tunnels under other highways in the region. The Federal Highway Administration reports that some crossings designed specifically for wildlife have reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions on freeways by more than 80 percent. “If we want to maintain wildlife populations in these urban areas, we have to take them into account,” says Barbara Marquez, Caltrans’ senior environmental planner for the project.

The Liberty Canyon crossing also would connect the northern and southern sections of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and this park to the Sierra Madre range. “Wildlife are great at telling us what areas are important to them. We have data points of cats going right up to the freeway and then turning around,” says Sikich. Riley agrees that a crossing here could help: “Not every animal is going to find it; we hope enough will. From a genetic point of view, you don’t need a lot of animals crossing to make a big difference.”

A Mountain Lion's Legacy


Video of P22 in Griffith Park courtesy of Griffith Park Connectivity Study.

In spite of P22 being able to disperse from the Santa Monica Mountains recreational area and recent video showing him somewhat recovered from the mange (below), his is not necessarily a success story. As Riley explains, “He still lives in the same place, exposed to the same dangers. No reason he couldn’t get mange again or eventually be hit by a vehicle trying to leave.” And with no breeding opportunities in the immediate vicinity, “he ended up in a dead end,” says Sikich.

Instead, P22’s greatest legacy may be in true Hollywood style: He has shone a spotlight on the plight of his Santa Monica Mountains brethren and all urban carnivores. The NPS scientists have been submitting testimony about the effects of rodenticide on wildlife to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more than a decade; earlier this year, California finally banned the unlicensed use of the most deadly of these poisons. Through NWF’s Save the L.A. Cougars campaign and P22’s growing fan base (below), support for the Liberty Canyon crossing is also gaining momentum. “Nothing has inspired me more than P22’s story,” says NWF’s California Director Beth Pratt. “One of the most important conservation issues of our times is finding ways we can coexist with urban wildlife.”



Giving Wildlife Safe Passage

NWF is partnering with the Santa Monica Mountains Fund to raise funds that promote U.S. National Park Service research of California mountain lions and the construction of a U.S. Highway 101 wildlife crossing at Liberty Canyon. After hearing the testimony of #SaveLACougar advocates and receiving more than a hundred letters of support, the State of California Coastal Conservancy voted unanimously on January 30 to grant $1 million toward the environmental assessment and design of this wildlife crossing.

"This is an enormous milestone in our campaign to provide safe passage for mountain lions and other wildlife in the Santa Monica Mountains,” says NWF California Director Beth Pratt. “However, we have a long way to go to reach our goal of being shovel ready by 2018.”

NWF has launched a “match the million” challenge to supporters, asking each to text “LION” to 25383 to make an automatic $10 donation (added to your phone bill) toward building a crossing at Liberty Canyon. See the picture above for details and go to www.nwf.org/lacougars and follow #SaveLACougars and @nwfcalifornia on Twitter to find out more.

National Wildlife Managing Editor Anne Bolen also wrote On the Trail of the Ghost Cat about mountain lion populations and movements in the United States.

More from National Wildlife magazine and NWF

When Carnivores Come Calling
Cat on a Collision Course
More about California's Mountain Lions
Nine Facts You Might Not Know about Mountain Lions
NWF at Work: Wildlife Corridors 

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