Clock ticking for rare cat on L.A.'s doorstep |jon_downes||01/06/04 at 12:11:29|jon_downes|xx|0||,1,7435375.story

Clock ticking for rare cat on L.A.'s doorstep

By Michael Martinez
Tribune national correspondent

December 30, 2003

IN THE SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS, Calif. -- With a radio wave receiver and small antenna in hand, National Park Service biologist Eric York searched for his old feline friend, the last male mountain lion in Los Angeles' signature mountains, which begin at the famous Hollywood sign and stretch with spectacular beauty to the Pacific shore.

The cat is lucky to be alive, expending one of his nine lives just this month when a hunter fired and missed as hounds chased the cat up trees and a ledge. A public outcry over the incident, carried out under a state permit, put a stop to the hunt, which was instigated after the mountain lion dined on some goats belonging to an influential land speculator.

It is remarkable in itself that the lion continues to live at the edge of Los Angeles' notorious sprawl, roaming freely through much of the 46-mile-long Santa Monica Mountains and feeding on abundant mule deer unless a goat crosses his path.

Big for these parts at 140 pounds, this semiurban lion enjoys no name other than the research designation P1, for Puma No. 1, given to him by the National Park Service after it found and tagged the cat a year and a half ago.

An extraordinary co-existence

York's tracking, using radio waves transmitted by the lion's collar, illustrated the extraordinary co-existence of man and a top-of-the-wildlife-chain carnivore that has been hunted out of existence in 38 states, including Illinois. The last Illinois sighting of a mountain lion--also called cougar, puma, panther, painter or catamount--was in 2000, when a male was killed Downstate by a train in Randolph County, conservationists said.

As hawks and ravens majestically rode thermal drafts near York atop the Zuma/Trancas Canyons, the 33-year-old biologist pointed to a low peak a mile away where radio and satellite signals earlier in the week had shown P1 apparently feasting on a deer kill for four days.

There, the chaparral of scrub oak and purple sage covered the hillside. But a mile west of the lair was a smattering of elegant Malibu homes and a mile to the south was the Pacific coastline, home to motorists, surfers, grocers, coffee shops and more housing developments.

Demonstrating the potential sensitivity of having a puma lurking at the door of the nation's second-largest city, York declined to provide the exact locations of the cat's dens and trails, or even the radio frequency used to track him.

"We're not going to publish every dot of information because people may say, `I can't believe he's in my back yard and you didn't tell us' or `He's near a school and you didn't tell us,'" said York, a contractor with the park service whose job is to track the lion.

No offspring from pair

There is a female in these mountains, the only other known puma here, found a few months after the male. At 85 pounds with an estimated age of 3 or 4 years, she is called P2 and roams only the central range, a third of what the male covers.

The two have not produced offspring, and York doesn't know why. According to DNA findings, the two are not father-daughter nor siblings. But time is running out for them to have a family. The male, estimated at 6 to 8 years old, is not expected to live much past age 10.

P1 flirted with a death sentence when he killed at least five goats in a spread west of Malibu Canyon belonging to land speculator Brian Sweeney of suburban Manhattan Beach.

Sweeney, who could not be reached for comment, has said that although he acquired a state permit to kill P1, he merely wanted to scare the animal away from the livestock he raises inside a 5-foot fence, an easy jump for a puma.

Sweeney arranged for a hunter to go after P1, and a local wildlife official said one shot was fired, missing the mountain's last male lion.

The cat was featured in a recent National Geographic television special about an effort to link 15 habitats called the South Coast Wildlands Project.

The permit was issued because the mountain lion threatened livestock, a provision allowed under state law. But the wildlife conservationists who sponsored the 1990 state proposition that enacted the law now say it needs improvement, to take account of potential extinctions in isolated habitats.

The proposition outlawed the trophy hunting of mountain lions at a time when state officials were considering allowing such hunts for recreation.

Lynn Sadler, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation in Sacramento, defended Sweeney.

"I know there are a number of people who aren't fond of him and they assign evil motivations," said Sadler, "but he's done what a lot of people have done for years. ... We kill a mountain lion in California every 2.4 days on a depredation permit.

"Most livestock owners have knowledge of how mountain lions work and [they] aren't the problem," Sadler said. "It's the people who move into the suburbs near a mountain lion habitat ... and they do things like feed deer on their back porch and they have a couple of hobby pets like goats in the back yard. Well, mountain lions feed on deer ... and the goats."

A shadowy neighbor

Longtime residents in the foothills are accustomed to wildlife such as coyotes taking away house cats and other pets, but few have seen the mountain lion, a solitary creature that can travel 10 miles overnight.

"I guess if they were eating people, [we] would feel differently, but if they stay in their corridor they don't bother us," said Barbara Wanbaugh, 71, a retired teacher and writer who has lived in her Malibu house for 20 years, just a mile from P1's most recent meal.

The federal park study of the last male lion will try to determine whether the cats can remain viable in these mountains--and, if so, whether multimillion-dollar improvements would be needed, such as huge wildlife viaducts over L.A.'s 8- to 10-lane freeways to allow greater mating opportunities.

So far, P1 and P2 each have traveled to an overlook near U.S. Highway 101, but neither has crossed it. Nor have they dared cross Interstate 405, which has kept them out of Los Angeles' more populated and famous communities such as Hollywood. Mountain lions in California occasionally have attacked children and adults in the past two decades, but the two in these mountains have not, park officials said.

The freeway-induced confinement cuts the two lions off from breeding with any lions in nearby ranges, ultimately raising the question of whether their extinction in the Santa Monica Mountains is inevitable.

New puma on horizon

Park officials have discovered a young male mountain lion in the Simi Hills, right across from the Santa Monica Mountains and U.S. Highway 101, an 8-lane buzz saw of traffic dividing the ranges. The Simi Hills puma, labeled P3, is so intrepid that he uses an equestrian tunnel under state Highway 118 to venture into the more expansive Santa Susana Mountains.

"Just from an aesthetic view, these are amazing animals," said Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service. "A few weeks ago, we found a kill that P2 had made, and this was a big buck. It was amazing to see the kill and we were on top of a hill and we were looking on the lights of the city.

"If in 20 years we are standing in the same place and saying, `Wow, it's really too bad that there are no more mountain lions,' it's really a shame, and our lives are going to be poorer by it."

Copyright (c) 2003, Chicago Tribune