The cougar’s last stand

Veronique du Turenne is a Malibu-based freelance writer.

Deep in the Santa Monica mountains, her exact whereabouts known only to biologists tracking her by GPS, the puma gave birth a year ago to four kittens. Two males and two females, their newborn eyes and ears sealed shut, their tiny bodies making swimming motions against the lapping of their mother’s rough tongue. It was a solitary act by a secretive animal in a wilderness her species has roamed for thousands of years.

Six weeks later, the cubs were media stars. Photo ops and stories by the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily News and ABC 7 News put them squarely in the public eye.

“Last known Santa Monica Mountain lions become parents”


Images of a National Park Service worker cradling a 6-week-old cub, all wide blue eyes and black-spotted fur, round and clumsy as a plush toy, gave the story legs.

“It’s quadruplets for the last known mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains”

The timing could not have been better. Just 10 months earlier, after an investigation showed that the cubs’ father, known as Puma 1 or P1, was preying on goats, a rancher had been granted a “kill” permit by the state Department of Fish and Game. News that hunters were about to shoot the last known male lion in the Santa Monica Mountains produced a public uproar. The rancher quickly backed down and the permit expired. Now, with the death sentence lifted and a litter of cubs giving the local mountain lion population a significant boost, there was cause for exultation.

“Four lion cubs are born free”

But Ray Sauvajot, a wildlife ecologist and director of the National Park Service’s 10-year-old Carnivore Project, knew better. In public, he shared his genuine joy at the litter’s birth. In private, he faced the grim truth that science wouldn’t let him ignore: With freeways, roads, business parks, housing developments and vineyards gobbling up their range, there isn’t enough wild land left in the Santa Monica Mountains to support all six pumas.

Without a way into the wilder lands to the north, these mountain lions may be doomed. They have no one to breed with but each other. Driven by his territorial instincts, P1 could kill any one of them at any time. What appeared to be salvation from extinction was, without some luck and some quick action by humans, the beginning of a grim slide into oblivion.

The puma in Topanga Canyon is invisible. buff-colored, he blends into the golden trunk of a sycamore, vanishes against the dun-colored dirt floor of his enclosure. Adjust your focus and suddenly he is there, crouched motionless save for the twitching black tip of his heavy tail.

His head is small and sleek. His fur is thick and soft as a house cat’s. It smells like warm toast. But before you can get too misty-eyed, even as you notice his pink nose, golden brown eyes and the Mr. Coffee murmur of his powerful purr, he makes the tiniest of motions. Shifts his weight, perhaps. Flexes his toes. And he’s airborne. No warning, no visible effort. Balletic and lethal, that long, long tail flowing behind as ballast, he floats 20 feet across the cage to land, soundless, inches away from your face.

“Hi, kitten. You killed us,” says Mollie Hogan, president of the Nature of Wildworks, the nonprofit wildlife refuge where the lion lives. He turns without a glance and stalks away.

Hogan’s compound shelters mostly native species displaced from zoos, illegally kept as pets or orphaned or injured in the wild. She uses the animals in public education programs. Today, she’s talking pumas.

Mountain lions roamed the Americas tens of thousands of years ago, she says. They were here when the Spanish conquered first the Aztecs and, centuries later, the Californias. Their range extends from the southern Andes Mountains of South America to the alpine forests of Alberta, Canada; from the West Coast of the U.S. across to the Florida Everglades. Among mountain lion subspecies, it is puma concolor, Latin for cat of one color, that resides in California.

“They’re the true natives,” says Hogan. “They’ve been here a lot longer than we have.”

Cat of one color, perhaps, but of many fanciful names. They have been called cougar, catamount, panther, king cat, mountain screamer, silver lion, brown tiger and, most telling of all, ghost cat. The males, which grow up to 8 feet long--3 feet of which is tail--can weigh up to 200 pounds. Females are slightly smaller, up to 6 feet long and from 80 to 130 pounds. They live and hunt alone, seeking each other out only to breed. Those encounters can be so ferocious that it’s sometimes impossible to tell whether the lions are trying to mate or murder each other.

Each zealously guards its territory. Males need about 150 square miles to survive, an enormous chunk of land. Females use about a third of that. They can mate at any time during the year, the fierce ritual sometimes taking several days. When the courtship is over, the male disappears.

The female gives birth and raises her litter alone. Kittens are born blind, with ringed tails and spotted coats that, at about 12 months, take on the characteristic sandy color. They don’t stay helpless for long. By the time they are 6 weeks old, they respond to a vocabulary of chirps, whistles, growls and screams, and accompany their mothers to a kill. At a year old, they’re helping in the hunt. Before they reach 18 months, the mother will drive them away, out into the wild to find their own territory.

From its lofty perch atop the food chain, the California cougar has a wide range of prey from which to choose. Coyotes, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, birds and even rodents can make it onto the menu. The quarry preferred above all others, however, is the mule deer. About 35 or 45 per puma per year. Which means that, in the Santa Monica Mountains, if you live near deer, you live near lions.

Most people in Los Angeles have never seen a mountain lion, but the mountain lions have seen them. Shy and stealthy, they move silently through the chaparral on their padded feet.

Data from P1’s high-tech collar shows that he ranges the length and breadth of the Santa Monica Mountains, from their eastern edge in Topanga State Park to their western terminus in Point Mugu State Park, about 35 miles as the crow flies. Recently, P1 has made regular trips into the wilderness around Topanga, giving scientists hope that an unknown female cougar may live in the region.

For the litter of kittens--yearlings now--life has been a steep learning curve. They are nearing adult size, with powerful muscles and strong, light bones. They know where to sleep, hidden under the roots of an upturned tree or in the cool dark of a rock overhang. They know which creeks and seeps to rely on for water even in a drought, and how to choose good hunting grounds where the cover is thick enough for camouflage yet sparse enough for a silent attack.

If their mother, P2, has done her job, the yearlings can scent a deer and soundlessly track it. The thick fur between their toes muffles their footfalls. They crouch stone-still, then, with their flexible spines and powerful hindquarters, explode into motion. Claws extended for traction, tails acting as rudders, the young cats eat up ground in flying leaps of up to 15 feet at a time. They grab the deer, claws still extended, clamp down on its neck and snap the spine with a killing bite. It’s over in an instant.

But none of it will matter when, in the coming weeks, the lions spread out in search of a home range only to find themselves trapped in their father’s territory by the concrete monolith of the 101 Freeway.

First, the males will battle for territory, winner take all. Those that survive their wounds will be forced into a perilous existence, living off the slim pickings of the range’s urbanized margins. There they face being shot, poisoned or run over, or a slow and painful death by starvation.

A solution in the form of thousands of undeveloped acres in the Simi Hills lies just to the north. There’s a logical crossing at the Liberty Canyon Road offramp of the 101 Freeway where two slender fingers of undeveloped land reach toward each other, bisected by only the freeway. P2 saw this place, and walked repeatedly to the ridge above the offramp last year to gaze across the freeway as if she was seeing the Promised Land.

“It’s something we noticed her do several times,” says wildlife ecologist Sauvajot. “She would stay up there, spend a whole evening there, just looking out at the Simi Hills.”

The history of the mountain lion in California has been a messy mix of good intentions and primal fear.

Between 1907 and 1963, under a state-approved bounty, more than 12,500 of the animals were killed. The bounty ended but some trophy hunting continued until 1972, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a law that, with two extensions, put a 14-year moratorium on sport hunting of pumas. In 1990, California voters passed Proposition 117, which prohibits trophy hunting and gives the mountain lion protected status. When a lion threatens or harms humans, pets or livestock, however, the Department of Fish and Game can issue a 10-day depredation permit and the animal will be shot.

Mountain lions may have dodged the hunter’s bullet, but until recently little had been done to address a bigger and more pressing problem: vanishing habitat. There were some groundbreaking examples outside Barstow, where a network of fences and culverts was built to guide desert tortoises safely beneath Route 58. In Florida, a series of bridges in the Everglades protects panthers, alligators and foxes from interstate traffic.

But with the new litter of pumas came a sense of urgency. Biologists are working with state officials to put a wildlife tunnel under the 101 Freeway specifically to attract the pumas. It has become ground zero in the quest to reconnect two habitats vital to the mountain lions’ survival.

Ron Kosinski, deputy director of Caltrans’ environmental planning division, estimates that the project will cost as much as $2.5 million and may take several years to finish. At least $1.3 million is in hand in the form of a Federal Highway Administration grant. Funding sources for the balance could include the National Park Service and Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, private donors and developers, who often are required to set aside money for environmental projects.

Caltrans engineers must do feasibility studies, draw up plans, get permits and meet with several other agencies involved in the project. Decisions about the size of the tunnel, the kind of landscaping it needs, the effects on other wildlife and on the freeway itself add to the complexity.

Kosinski acknowledges the irony of the state’s road builder now turning its skills to providing pathways for animals. “Really, it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “Humans carved up the habitat and in terms of being a good steward, it’s up to us to bring that back. If we can re-create a bit of how things used to be, then we’re doing something important.”

But what about the humans? According to California Fish and Game statistics, there were12 verifiable attacks--one in L.A. County, in the San Gabriel Mountains--on humans by mountain lions from 1986 to 2004. Three were fatal, none of the deaths occurring in L.A. County. Human encounters with mountain lions--a sighting with no threat of attack by the animal--held steady in the mid- to low-400 range from 2001 to 2003. In 2004, however, the number almost doubled.

Lynn Sadler, president of the Mountain Lion Foundation, attributes this to the rapid rate of habitat loss and the relatively long time it takes a wild animal to adjust to changes in its home range. “It takes a few years for them to learn a new migration trail,” Sadler says. “A new housing development can go up in a matter of months in wilderness that has been there for thousands of years. The lions don’t have a newspaper to say, your territory is gone, take another route.”

David Baron, whose book “The Beast in the Garden” explores the confluence of lions and humans in Colorado, doesn’t expect the fear to fade.

“We evolved as prey animals, and deep in the recess of our minds there may be some ancestral memory that big felines are to be feared,” Baron says. The fact that more people each year are killed by dogs, burned in fires or crushed by vending machines than in the jaws of a mountain lion means little.

“Accidents are simply not as scary as an animal who wants to eat you,” he says. “We are no longer used to being prey.”

He sees the pro-lion lobby as equally unrealistic.

“Keeping a few mountain lions around in the Santa Monica Mountains will do absolutely nothing for the mountains,” he says.

But ecological consequences can be hard to foresee. When wolves were exterminated in Yellowstone National Park in the 1920s, no one really understood what it would do. Without the wolves, the elk population grew, overgrazing the riparian stream areas. As a result, several native species vanished and bird populations dwindled. When the wolves returned, so did the songbirds.

Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service, sees potential for the same kind of unexpected effects with the mountain lions.

Some biologists have speculated that fewer mountain lions could mean more mule deer, which could mean more deer ticks and more Lyme disease. “When a predator like a mountain lion disappears, you really can’t tell what’s going to happen,” Riley says.

A year after the cubs’ birth, the newspapers had another mountain lion story to report, but there was no joy in this one. The mother mountain lion was dead, killed by her mate. Everything seemed to be going well as the four cubs approached their first birthday in August. All were alive and thriving. About 60 pounds, they had beaten the predicted odds that only two would survive the first year. P1 had stolen several kills from P2 and the kittens over the summer, but this was considered normal behavior and the encounters appeared harmless.

Until the second week in August. Data from his radio collar showed P1 making a beeline for P2 and her cubs. He had covered 5 miles during the night to reach the small family. On the morning of Aug. 12, P1’s radio collar frequency showed that he was near a wooded area north of Mulholland Highway between Kanan and Las Virgenes roads. Jeff Sikich, a National Park Service biologist, was standing about 200 feet away.

Sikich donned a pair of bulky headphones and aimed a small antenna into the trees to capture radio signals from the lions. All six were nearby. He stood and waited to see what, if anything, would unfold.

“Pumas being solitary animals, they wouldn’t be together unless they were breeding or fighting over a kill or territory,” Sikich recalls. “Twenty minutes went by and the suddenly P1 broke in and all heck broke loose.”

The lions hissed and screamed and growled. The kittens fled. Sikich could see brush moving, could hear one of the pumas caterwauling. It sounded like P2 and P1 were mating. Or fighting.

The terrible sounds continued for three hours, rising and falling, stopping and then beginning again. At the end, Sikich heard P2 make faint mewling sounds, followed by a strong hiss and a fading growl. And then there was a long, unbroken silence.

A day later, P2’s collar gave off the rapid beep-beep-beep of a mortality signal. The female mountain lion hadn’t moved in the last eight hours. Biologists waited another day to give P1 time to clear out, then hiked in to collect P2’s body. It was covered with wounds from a brutal fight, the face bearing teeth marks from what Sikich thinks may have been the fatal bite.

P2’s body was sent for a necropsy and for DNA testing to learn how closely related she was to P1. The results should be ready later this month. Other information will be harder to come by.

Did P2 die protecting a kill? Sikich says he saw no sign of a carcass. Was P1 drawn to her because she was in heat? Was she defending her cubs? Did she die because a lack of habitat kept her and P1 in unnatural proximity?

Whatever the answers, the loss of P2 has added urgency to the Liberty Canyon Road crossing. In the next few years, it’s all but certain that one of the cubs will give birth to her brother’s or father’s kittens. The gene pool can absorb this for a generation, but beyond that it may be severely damaged.

“It’s this simple,” says Sauvajot. “The survival of these animals is in our hands.”