Lions in Los Angeles: Survival Is Tricky

By Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor

Try as we might not to anthromorphize the mountain lions that roam the Santa Monica Mountains by assigning each a simple number, P22 has erased that anonymity by entering an almost mythical realm, becoming L.A.’s most famous feline.

Having defied all expectations for survival in an urban environment fraught with myriad dangers, P22 is not a stranger to Angelinos. In 2012, he left his home in the western Santa Monica Mountains and journeyed 20 miles, crossing both the 405 and 101 freeways to Griffith Park, where he has continued to make his home. (The “P” comes from Puma concolor, the species whose common names include puma, panther, catamount, cougar, and mountain lion.)

P-22 hunts by night, sleeps by day. Photo: Miguel Ordeñana

To tell the story of P22 and urban carnivores in general, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has mounted an exhibition that explores the cats’ daily habits and survival techniques through graphics, projections, photography and video.

In February 2012, NHMLA ecologist Miguel Ordeñana began a study researching Griffith Park as a wildlife oasis. As part of the Griffith Park Connectivity Study, a joint effort of Cooper Ecological and the U. S. Geological Survey, he used infrared cameras to monitor animal movements across known corridors, trails with scat, and ridgelines.

“When I was reviewing footage, documenting coyotes and deer, all of a sudden, I got a mountain lion across my screen. I never expected to see a space-needy animal out there,” Ordeñana recalls.

Mountain Lion Home Ranges, 2016.
Courtesy National Park Service, U. S. Department of the Interior.

The National Park Service was able to tranquilize P-22 early on in order to fit the lion with a GPS collar and allow biologists to monitor the cat’s movements and take samples of blood and hair and measure the teeth.

“P-22 is an interesting experiment,” says Ordeñana, commenting on the puma’s ability to adapt to a disturbed habitat of just nine square miles (including Forest Lawn, Warner Bros and DWP property). This tiny island is a mere dot for an animal whose range can vary from 10 square miles to 370 square miles.

Pumas are extremely adaptable, that’s the reason why they are the only cat to survive the Ice Age,” Ordeñana continues. “They can live in wetlands, rain forests, high elevations, deserts and urban landscapes.

“They are not like coyotes who have become habituated to human beings. Pumas do not eat garbage nor are they focusing on pets, unless of course there happen to be some vulnerable alpacas in their territory. Their diet is 83 percent mule deer and 17 percent coyotes and raccoons.”

They avoid people, being solitary animals who, just like domestic cats, sleep during the day and hunt at night. But there is a danger of over-identifying with animals that leads people to expect human behavior.

Danger, Toxic Snacks.
Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Last spring, the affection of the public and the forbearance of officials were tested when P-22 scaled a nine-foot-high fence at the L.A. Zoo and ate an endangered Australian koala.

While mountain lions have special protection in California, there is a depredation permit that allows citizens to kill a mountain lion that threatens or attacks a person or his property.

P22 is not the only mountain lion in greater Los Angeles. The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a 250-sq.-mile patchwork of parks, preserves and private land, is home to about 15 adult cats. But freeways have progressively isolated and dissected these urban populations, leading to battles among lions for scarce space and resources; lions in the Santa Monicas have killed their relatives and former mates.

Inbreeding causes physical changes that hinder reproduction. If no new lions enter the area, the likelihood of L.A.’s lions disappearing in 50 years is 99.7 per cent. But genetic rescue can come in the form of just one new animal in each generation.

Proposed wildlife crossing over the 101 freeway at Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills.
Design: Clark Stevens/Raymond Garcia for the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains

With these dreaded extinction possibilities, perhaps the last best solution for ensuring a future for the cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains is the proposed wildlife crossing over the 101 freeway at Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills. The 165-foot-wide, 200-foot-long overpass would connect the Santa Monica Mountains on the south with the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains.

According to a preliminary design, an apron lushly planted with sweet-smelling mulefat and coastal sage will funnel animals up a gentle incline to the crossing, where the landscaped habitat will continue high above 10 lanes of freeway. The project, currently under environmental review and estimated to cost $50 million, will be privately financed. Save LA Cougars is raising money for the effort.

Although P-22 has rallied the conservation community and the larger public around the need for connectivity, he won’t benefit from a crossing, but the crossing will prevent other lions from potentially disappearing from the local mountains.

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