Crafty cougar caught, collared

OUT THE OTHER SIDE—P-64, nicknamed the Culvert Cat, crosses under a local roadway. The National Park Service keeps location confidential to protect both the lions and the NPS photo equipment. Courtesy of National Park Service

OUT THE OTHER SIDE—P-64, nicknamed the Culvert Cat, crosses under a local roadway. The National Park Service keeps location confidential to protect both the lions and the NPS photo equipment. Courtesy of National Park Service

There’s a new member of the local mountain lion population that’s being studied by the National Park Service.

P-54 became the 15th cougar fitted with a GPS collar when she was captured on Feb. 27 near the Pepperdine University campus in Malibu.

The study tracks animals in the Santa Monica Mountains, Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains.

Kate Kuykendall, public affairs officer for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a division of the park service, said P-54 was fitted with an identification tag following her birth in Jan. 2017, but at some point the tag came off and they lost track of her.

“(When we captured her) we thought it was probably P-54, but mountain lions are always surprising us so we’ve learned not to be certain until it’s proven,” Kuykendall said. “We’ve been waiting for DNA results to come back and now we can confirm this is P-54.”

Park service biologists worried that the cat may have died after her mother, P-23, was struck and killed by a car while crossing Malibu Canyon Road last January. Mountain lions leave their mothers by the time they’re a year-and-a-half old and P-54 was only 1-year-old when her mother was killed.

“One of the cool things about our study is that we’re able to monitor individual cats over a long period of time, from the time kittens are a couple weeks old all the way through them dying,” Kuykendall said. “So to have a kitten like P-54 and then lose her (was) a bummer. It was really fortuitous that we were able to capture her and place a tracking collar on her and we can continue to learn about this population.”

Cougars are intensely territorial creatures—an adult male typically has 200 square miles of territory to itself, and will fight to the death with another male that tries to make a home in the same space. To protect the dwindling number of mountain lions in the area, biologists will not relocate them because they will likely end up in another cat’s territory.

Kuykendall said females are not as territorial as males. Only half of females leave their mother’s home range. Even without the challenge of fighting for territory, there are a number of obstacles to their survival.

Southern California’s many freeways can keep a cougar pinned into a territory that can’t support it or that belongs to another cat, and attempting to cross the busy highways can sometimes end fatally. P-23 was the 18th known mountain lion killed on a roadway since the park service began studying the regional cougar population in 2002.

One cool cat

But the big cats have been known to cross the local highways successfully—and one of them has even become really good at it.

P-64, nicknamed the Culvert Cat, has made 20 crossings involving the 101 and 118 freeways since he was first collared in February. Biologists, however, know that most cougars aren’t so lucky.

Other dangers

Death doesn’t have to come from a speeding car. There have been many cases of predators dying as a result of rodenticide poisoning—rats infected with anticoagulant poisons are eaten by foxes, raccoons and coyotes that are in turn preyed upon by cougars. As poison builds in their system, the animals succumb to the poison and develop internal bleeding, mange and a number of other symptoms that lead to death.

The limited space available to mountain lions limits the species’ gene pool, which could eventually impact their ability to reproduce.

Experts say the proposed Liberty Canyon wildlife crossing may be a solution to these issues.

“The reason why it’s important to have a wildlife crossing, for females in particular, is so that they can disperse out to a different area and find new breeding opportunities so they don’t have to continue breeding with their father or grandfather,” Kuykendall said. “We haven’t seen genetic defects in this population yet, but we know of it occurring in other populations.”

At the crossroads

A meeting is planned for 4 p.m. Mon., June 25 at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Interagency Visitor Center (King Gillette Ranch) to discuss the wildlife bridge.

Early plans call for a 165-foot-wide by 200-foot-long vegetated bridge across U.S. Highway 101 with an extension over Agoura Road, a city street that runs parallel to the freeway on the south side.

The bridge is expected to cost about $60 million and will be paid for through a combination of private donations and taxpayer dollars.

Caltrans, which gave approval to preliminary plans on May 2, expects the design phase to be completed in two years followed by construction in late 2020, depending on funding availability.