Saturday, March 21, 2009

The lions of Los Angeles

By Dana Bartholomew, Staff Writer
Updated: 03/20/2009 10:50:39 PM PDT

THOUSAND OAKS — He was king of the Santa Monica Mountains, the baddest cat around Malibu.

But the 11-year-old mountain lion known to ecologists as P-1 — as in puma one — may have met his end this week in a treetop scrap with a smaller, younger cat.

The irony: Last month, the suspected challenger was the first mountain lion ever monitored crossing the 101 Freeway — evidence local mountain lions are getting a better chance of survival by mixing with other large cat populations.

To better track their ability to cross the freeway, the National Park Service and Caltrans will install 20 video cameras this month at potential lion crossings from Thousand Oaks to Woodland Hills.

"It's really important, because we feel if the mountain lions are going to survive in the Santa Monica Mountains, they need to have occasional animals come (in) from the north, both for genetic reasons and to replenish the population," said Seth Riley, wildlife ecologist for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the largest urban national park.

"The 101 is the barrier. If we are going to conserve mountain lions in this area, they're going to have to cross the freeway."

Biologists believe there are between five and 10 lions roaming the 153,000-acre mountain park between the Simi Hills and the Pacific Palisades.

Since 2002, National Park Service officials have monitored a dozen of the big cats with radio collars and GPS tracking devices.

On Monday, ranch hands in Hidden Valley south of Thousand Oaks reported a bloody radio collar. In the tree overhead there were tufts of mountain lion hair. On the ground there was blood. And P-1's collar.

But no lion.

For 11 years, P-1 had been the alpha male of the high chaparral, ranging hundreds of square miles from Point Mugu to Topanga State Park above Tarzana.

Weighing in at between 140 and 150 pounds, he was the largest cat ever caught by the National Park Service in Thousand Oaks.

He was also known to have killed three other lions, including two offspring, among them a female with whom he'd mated.

But whether he's still king is the question, as park officials complete a forensic examination of the remains.

"We believe he was in a big fight, and may not have made it," said Riley, an assistant professor at UCLA. "But then again, he could still be alive."

Park biologists had been recently monitoring four male lions, including the pugnacious P-1.

There's P-10, a 100-pound, 2-year-old lion that ranged from Cal State Channel Islands in Camarillo to the Pacific Palisades, where he was once trapped napping between two homes.

This week, P-10 was tracked near the J. Paul Getty Center. On Friday, park biologists were trying to trap him in Topanga State Park to fix a defunct global positioning system signal.

There was P-11, a young male whose tracking collar died recently in the western Santa Monicas.

And there was P-12, first monitored in December, who created a park service sensation when he crossed the 101 Freeway at Liberty Canyon Road at 1 a.m. Feb. 24, venturing from the Simi Hills to the Santa Monica Mountains. It's not clear whether he skedaddled across the freeway or slunk beneath the underpass.

Now living near Zuma Beach, P-12 could possibly have taken down P-1, Riley said, making him the new lion king.

"We'll see," he said cautiously. "He could be P-12 ... a little bigger at 120 pounds. We'll see."

Mountain lions generally kill one large animal per week, mostly deer. While adult males generally range about 250 square miles, Riley said, females range much less. The animals mate year round.

Last year, Congress authorized a study to expand the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area to ensure more wildlife corridors. Conservationists believed linked habitats are crucial to healthy animal populations.

"It's very exciting," said Ron Sundergill, regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, who this week inspected the lion crossing site.

"What we want to do is make sure there are wildlife corridors. That's one corridor between the (Santa Monica Mountains) park and the larger Rim of the Valley - a 600,000-acre section that could potentially be the boundaries for the new national park."

Naturalist Dan Cooper said cats aren't the only animals on the move.

"Even things that we thought were barriers are not," he said, adding he just learned of a bear being spotted at Stone Canyon Reservoir in Beverly Hills. "How do you get a bear across the 405 (Freeway)?"


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