National Park Service Hopes to Collar the New Cat and Add It to Study
BY HANS LAETZ
The big cougar nicknamed “Phantom” was ambling down the dark path, far above the Big Rock subdivision, on a cool fall night last November. Something smelled good, little did the puma know it was a commercial wild cat lure from a can, smeared around a wildlife path high in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Flash! The phantom is no longer unknown, a motion-sensing camera has grabbed its picture.
“He’s an adult lion, not a kitten,” said Seth Riley, a National Park Service biologist and big cat tracker. “The camera was in a similar area to where P-8 had died just a few weeks earlier.”
The new mountain lion is believed to be the one that fought P-8, the young male mountain lion wearing a radio tag who died of a fight-caused infection last October, said Riley.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Supt. Woody Smeck said the discovery of the new cat lends new importance to the ongoing private fundraising drive aimed at replenishing the account for the ongoing mountain cat study.
“The costs vary per year, but we’re looking at about $150,000 per year in costs for the ecologists to do their work, and the supplies,” he said. The federal budget does not have an earmark for local big cats.
The new cat, who won’t be labeled P (for puma) plus a number until he or she is collared, joins two other pumas known to be in the upper elevations of the Santa Monicas, avoiding people and roaming as far as Point Mugu to the west and some 40 miles past Malibu to the 405 freeway in the east.
P-1, the patriarch of the original clan, remains at the western end of the mountains, feasting on mule deer. His radio collar is actually a GPS-equipped cellphone that calls home whenever it detects cellular service.
“One thing that’s interesting is that he hasn’t been on the eastern side of the range for quite some time,” Riley said. “He’s big enough to whack anyone in his way, so we don’t know if he’s avoiding the other guy or not.”
P-6, the last surviving cub sired by P-1, remains in the Malibu Creek State Park area. The cub’s mother, and two of its siblings, were killed by P-1; and sibling P-8 met his death after tangling with the mystery cat last fall in Tuna Canyon.
P-5 and P-6 were not believed related directly to the Malibu-area cats, and ranged on both sides of the 118 freeway near Simi Valley. Both died after ingesting rat poison, possibly caused by eating coyotes that had met their demise by snarfing poisoned rodents.
Park officials are withholding the public unveiling of “Phantom cat’s” photo until an invitation-only fundraiser next weekend in Agoura, where money will be raised for additional puma studies.
Officials don’t know the gender of the new cat, but are guessing it’s a male. “That’s a very critical question, for all kinds of reasons,” Riley said. Officials are concerned that a lack of fresh DNA in the isolated Santa Monica cougar habitat could weaken the gene pool.
“We think it is a male, because P-8 was a good-sized mountain lion, and this one killed P-8. And males tend to fight more,” he said.
Even if he is a brawler, Smeck said the fresh mountain lion blood lines are important to the entire wildlife picture in the mountains above Malibu.
“If we lose the mountain lion then we’ve lost the top carnivore in the food chain, and we begin to lose the checks and balances that keep the whole system in place,” the park superintendent said.