Lion kings

Los Angeles Times - - OP- ED -

They started life as city boys. In Wash­ing­ton, Seth Ri­ley (at right in the photo) grew up in­ter­ested in snakes (not the po­lit­i­cal kind), and in Chicago, Jeff Si­kich some­times went fish­ing with his grand­fa­ther. How things change. Both are now hands-on wildlife spe­cial­ists in the long-run­ning moun­tain lion project at the Na­tional Park Ser­vice in the Santa Mon­ica Moun­tains, where they mon­i­tor the re­gion’s big­gest sur­viv­ing car­ni­vore — about 10 or 15 cats, as far as they know. In all, the project has tracked about 40 over 13 years. Si­kich, who has also put track­ing col­lars on jaguars in the Ama­zon and tigers in Su­ma­tra, has col­lared 11 moun­tain li­ons here, among them stars like Grif­fith Park’s P-22, and P-41, re­cently dis­cov­ered prowl­ing the Ver­dugo Moun­tains. Like the moun­tain li­ons, Ri­ley and Si­kich know the ur­ban-wild­land in­ter­face face to face.

What’s the sta­tus of moun­tain li­ons in th­ese parts?

Ri­ley: There’s good news and bad news. We have lots of high-qual­ity habi­tat in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Our pop­u­la­tion in the Santa Mon­ica Moun­tains is re­pro­duc­ing; sur­vival rates for adults are pretty high; they have plenty of deer, which is their main prey. The bad news is none of the ar­eas, specif­i­cally the Santa Mon­ica Moun­tains, is big enough for a vi­able pop­u­la­tion.

Si­kich: An adult male moun­tain lion can roam from 200 to 250 square miles. The moun­tains are roughly 275 miles, bor­dered by hard bar­ri­ers — the ocean, the free­ways, the Ox­nard agri­cul­tural fields. We can fit maybe one or two adult males and a sprin­kling of four to six fe­males — fe­males have a much smaller range.

Ri­ley: The lead­ing causes of death in our area are from adult male moun­tain li­ons killing younger ones. That’s be­cause the young an­i­mals can’t dis­perse. Typ­i­cally all male moun­tain li­ons and half of the fe­males dis­perse to find their own range. Here they try [but] run into free­ways and devel­op­ment — and into adult males — and get killed.

P-12, a young male in the Santa Mon­i­cas who ac­tu­ally sur­vived [cross­ing the 101 Free­way], [has] bred ex­ten­sively — he keeps fa­ther­ing lit­ters. In one of his most re­cent lit­ters, all three [young cats] dis­persed and two of them crossed the 101, which was sur­pris­ing.

What’s be­come of plans to build a wildlife overpass or un­der­pass for the 101, to pro­vide ac­cess to more habi­tat?

Ri­ley: We have al­most noth­ing in the way of good cross­ings on the 101. We’re a long way from build­ing any­thing. We’re work­ing hard on it, with Cal­trans and state parks and many dif­fer­ent groups.

Si­kich: Ev­ery year it seems like we’re closer and closer to get­ting some­thing built.

What’s the holdup?

Ri­ley: Money. A tun­nel would [cost] less but would not be as ef­fec­tive for many dif­fer­ent species as an overpass. When you’re con­serv­ing moun­tain li­ons, that’s prob­a­bly help­ing to con­serve a lot of other smaller things too. [An overpass] would be a huge state­ment about con­ser­va­tion and South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and the fact that this area cares about the en­vi­ron­ment and wildlife.

Make the case for why we need moun­tain li­ons.

Si­kich: Our man­date is to pro­tect and con­serve all species. We don’t know all the com­pli­cated eco­log­i­cal roles th­ese an­i­mals play in our moun­tains, but we do know the moun­tain lion is our last re­main­ing large car­ni­vore.

What other large car­ni­vores were here?

Si­kich: Griz­zly bears and wolves. The moun­tain lion is prey­ing on deer, so if you re­move li­ons from that equa­tion, we don’t know what would hap­pen. It’s an ex­per­i­ment we don’t want to con­duct. Be­sides th­ese com­pli­cated eco­log­i­cal roles, to many peo­ple’s minds moun­tain li­ons play a spir­i­tual role. All large car­ni­vores bring out a sense of wild­ness in peo­ple. If we didn’t have th­ese large car­ni­vores in our moun­tains, it would be a sad day.

The last Cal­i­for­nian killed by a moun­tain lion was ev­i­dently re­pair­ing his bike when he was at­tacked on a wilder­ness trail in Or­ange County in 2004, but peo­ple still fear that.

Ri­ley: It’s in­cred­i­bly rare. Un­for­tu­nately we don’t know why it hap­pens in the sit­u­a­tions it does. We’ve stud­ied 41 moun­tain li­ons over 13 years [in the Santa Mon­ica Moun­tains re­gion] and never had any ev­i­dence of ag­gres­sive be­hav­ior to­ward peo­ple — and that’s in a frag­mented area with mil­lions of vis­i­tors ev­ery year. Th­ese moun­tain li­ons are see­ing us, and they’re run­ning the other way.

The news me­dia and so­cial me­dia went crazy when P-22, the Grif­fith Park moun­tain lion, was found un­der a house.

Si­kich: P-22 has mul­ti­ple Face­book ac­counts, Twit­ter ac­counts, even a Tin­der ac­count!

Ri­ley: Some of the tweets are very funny, like “Don’t call me P-22, my name is Raoul.” The cov­er­age helps peo­ple be­come aware and con­cerned about moun­tain li­ons and wildlife gen­er­ally.

Your man­date — rather like the “Star Trek” prime di­rec­tive — is to study and not to in­ter­fere. In 1999 you were out track­ing a fe­male, P-4, and her kit­tens, and re­al­ized she was be­ing at­tacked by her mate.

Si­kich: We had an adult fe­male, an adult male and their off­spring. We were in­ter­ested to see what hap­pened. We fol­lowed th­ese an­i­mals. All of a sud­den they had this con­fronta­tion. Two of the kit­tens ran by me; there were vo­cal­iza­tions for about three hours. Th­ese adult males def­i­nitely over­power the fe­males. If he wanted to go in and kill her right away [he could have]. Maybe he was at­tempt­ing to breed. We just don’t know what he was do­ing.

And then you got the “mor­tal­ity sig­nal” from her col­lar.

Ri­ley: Two days later we hiked in. We saw P-1 just hang­ing out. We waited for him to leave and Jeff and I went and picked her up. It was rel­a­tively un­usual: Males will kill other males; there are hardly any cases we know of where adult males have killed fe­males they’ve mated with. That seems like a bad strat­egy.

Could this be stress be­hav­ior from con­fined habi­tat?

Ri­ley: It’s hard to be sure, but we do think some of th­ese [un­usual] be­hav­iors are more com­mon here. We’ve seen mul­ti­ple in­stances of males mat­ing with their daugh­ters. We think it’s made more likely by the fact no­body can dis­perse.

Si­kich: This species used to be coast to coast, from the bot­tom of South Amer­ica al­most to the Arc­tic. In North Amer­ica they were ba­si­cally elim­i­nated ev­ery­where east of the Mis­sis­sippi ex­cept Florida. Florida pan­thers got down to fewer than 30 an­i­mals. They ac­tu­ally had in­breed­ing [prob­lems] — holes in the heart, ma­jor re­pro­duc­tive is­sues. There was a lot of con­cern about, are we mess­ing up this work, [but] they brought in eight fe­males from Texas, five of whom re­pro­duced, so now the pop­u­la­tion is maybe close to 200 and all the ge­netic is­sues ba­si­cally dis­ap­peared.

Cal­i­for­nia’s state pop­u­la­tion isn’t at risk, but the lo­cal ones are iso­lated, like the new guy in the Ver­du­gos, P-41.

Si­kich: He’s an adult, maybe 8 years old. In the wild, 12 years is an old moun­tain lion. The Ver­du­gos are a small patch of habi­tat sur­rounded by devel­op­ment and free­ways, roughly 19 square miles. We’re re­ally in­ter­ested about whether he’s cross­ing the 210 and get­ting into the San Gabriels.

Ri­ley: Grif­fith Park is even smaller, like eight square miles. It’s amaz­ing that [P-22] has been there for three years. As far as we’ve seen, that’s the small­est home range any­one’s recorded for a male adult. There’s plenty of prey, but he’s been there for three years now and there’s no breed­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for him.

So many species get to the edge of ex­tinc­tion. Do you ever feel that you’re fight­ing a rear-guard ac­tion?

Si­kich: I’m hope­ful moun­tain li­ons can be here in the fu­ture. The habi­tat is good for that; there’s mo­men­tum about a wildlife cross­ing.

What should we call them? Moun­tain li­ons? Cougars? Pumas?

Si­kich: Any. The moun­tain lion holds the Guin­ness record for the an­i­mal with the most names!

This in­ter­view has been edited and con­densed. patt.mor­ri­son@la­ Twit­ter: @pattm­la­times

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

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