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Wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich knows how to get his mountain lion

Jeff Sikich shinnied up a charred oak in the Allegheny Mountains of western Virginia, shined his flashlight down into the hollowed-out trunk and gazed into the wary eyes of a mother bear 10 feet below.

As he fired a sedative dart into the black bear's shoulder, another biologist on the ground hollered for Sikich to block the opening to keep the bear from climbing up and out. Sikich leaned his long torso into the trunk's interior as the bear raced up, stopping about a foot from his nose.

"She stayed there looking at me, huffing and puffing her jaws and slapping the tree with her massive paws," he recalled.

PHOTOS: Tracking mountain lions

The drug soon took effect and the bear retreated into her arboreal den, Sikich said, "but the guys on the ground had a good laugh when they saw my legs shaking while the rest of my body was stuffed in the hole."

For a wildlife biologist who relishes close encounters with feral meat eaters, such adrenaline-pumping moments are all in a day's — or night's — work. In pursuit of lions (mountain), tigers (Sumatran) and bears (black), Sikich has hacked his way through jungle and snowshoed over forested backcountry.

He has concocted lures from beaver parts, skunk essence and catnip oil. He has used blowpipes to dart furry limbs and lowered drowsing animals from trees.

Sikich's instincts in the wild and his humane captures have earned him a place among a cadre of go-to carnivore trackers.

Agencies and nonprofit groups across the nation and around the world have enlisted him to capture and collar animals, many of them threatened, so that their eating and mating habits, movements and life spans could be studied.

Sikich has safely caught hundreds of carnivores large and small, most recently leopards in South Africa for the Cape Leopard Trust and mountain lions and jaguars in Peru for the World Wildlife Fund. He has weighed them, measured their teeth, taken blood samples and attached radio tracking collars.

But his main work for the last decade has been somewhere less exotic: right here in Southern California, where as a wildlife biologist for the National Park Service he has trailed cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

The study looks at the effects on these predators of dense population and habitat-splintering freeways, residential areas and commercial centers. The researchers' findings have bolstered arguments for a wildlife corridor across the 101 Freeway to afford cougars safe passage between the Santa Monicas and ranges to the north, with the aim of expanding territories and mating options.

As part of the study, Sikich has twice captured and collared P-22, the male puma that in February became the first mountain lion to be photographed in Griffith Park.

The recapture — to replace a nonfunctioning GPS device — followed months during which Sikich drove his government pickup in and around the park, using an antenna to pick up very high frequency signals still beaming from the cougar's collar. Just after sunrise one August morning, Sikich and a colleague hiked in and spotted the cat, relaxing in a boulder-strewn ravine.

Sikich, 6 feet 2 and 180 pounds, clambered onto an overhanging limb to survey his quarry, about 10 feet away. The cat didn't move. "He knew I was there," Sikich said.

Last May in the Santa Monicas, Quinton Martins, chief executive of the Cape Leopard Trust in Cape Town, South Africa, shadowed Sikich and admired his technique with foot-hold snares. Martins thought the devices would be less harmful to leopards, which injure themselves trying to bite or scratch their way out of box or cage traps. He invited Sikich to the Boland Mountains to teach the method.

For his first capture in South Africa, Sikich buried a spring-loaded snare made of cables on a rocky ridge where remote cameras had captured images of leopards. He camouflaged the trap with sticks and stones. A leopard (BM4), about 8 years old, soon walked by, causing the spring to throw the loop around a front paw.

Within two weeks, "we had captured and collared three male leopards," Martins said. "Awesome!"

Sikich, 37, grew up in the southern suburbs of Chicago and northwest Indiana. He is the eldest of three children from a thoroughly citified family. His mother worked as a home interior decorator for a furniture manufacturer. His father was a manager at a vending company.

Sikich found his way into the woods when a grandfather, Gene Dickson, took him fishing.

"We call him mountain man," said younger sister Sara Sikich, a Chicago resident who has never been camping.

Sikich describes himself this way: "I am much more comfortable navigating if you drop me off in the middle of the woods than in the middle of the city."

He shares that sentiment with carnivore trackers such as Winston Vickers, a UC Davis wildlife veterinarian working with the Nature Conservancy in the Santa Ana Mountains, and Boone Smith, a third-generation houndsman featured in "American Cougar," a program that aired on the cable channel Nat Geo WILD.

From a young age, Sikich embraced the idea of working outdoors. One summer during college, he waited tables at Flagg Ranch, a northwest Wyoming resort between Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. On frequent hikes, he saw elk, bison and even a grizzly, and the experiences helped spark his interest in wildlife conservation.

In 1998, he received his bachelor's degree in environmental science and management from Indiana University Bloomington. He soon migrated to Las Vegas to attach transmitters to desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert so that U.S. Geological Survey scientists could follow their movements and diets.

In Minnesota he fired nets from guns to capture ducks and attach identifying bands to allow U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researchers to learn about the birds' life spans and migratory routes. His quarries grew progressively larger: Threatened gray wolves in Minnesota and bears in Virginia, work that required shearing tree limbs with a chain saw while suspended from ropes.

He lives in Malibu with his wife, Sarah, coastal resources director for Heal the Bay. They met on Catalina in 2002 when he was part of a team eradicating feral pigs on the island. When conditions are good, he and Sarah surf in the morning before heading to their jobs. Sarah went along as a volunteer on the South Africa leopard trip.

Sikich acknowledges that congested Southern California is an unnatural habitat for a guy who prefers dirt trails to asphalt.

But he was drawn by the ocean — and the chance to follow cougars in arguably the best U.S. laboratory for studying large carnivores' persistence in an intensely urban environment.

"They're sort of this mystical presence out there," said Seth Riley, who heads the wildlife program for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Given the demands of his job, Riley said, "I depend on people like Jeff to capture the mountain lions."

Sikich insists he has never felt in danger, despite the time early in his career when one of the Virginia black bears scrambled over him while escaping from a cave. He realizes that threats in the wild go beyond being raked by claws.

In 2007, Eric York, a skilled trapper, died in Arizona of pneumonic plague. Sikich and York had become friends while capturing lynxes in Maine, and York recommended him for the Santa Monica Mountains study. Experts said York probably became infected while examining a female cat that had died in Grand Canyon National Park.

His death prompted the National Park Service to alter its necropsy protocols, Sikich says.

"It was just a freak occurrence," Sikich said. "But it reminded us of the inherent risks.... After his death, when I field-necropsy an animal, that's always in the back of my mind."

Studying big carnivores requires patience. For every discouraging finding about the Santa Monica Mountains lions — increased inbreeding, males fighting to the death over territory — Sikich is buoyed by hopeful news, such as the California Department of Transportation's effort to secure a grant to build a $10-million wildlife corridor across the 101 at Liberty Canyon Road.

Not every lion, after all, can be as lucky as P-22, the puma that managed to cross the 101 and the 405 — perhaps via a bridge or culvert — to enter Griffith Park. After Sikich found the lion in that ravine in August, he raced on foot to his truck and returned an hour later with capture equipment.

He climbed back onto the tree branch and used a silent dart pistol to deliver a sedative. Three minutes later, P-22 was asleep, and Sikich lowered himself into the animal's hiding space.

"He appeared healthy and had a nice fat belly, so he must have recently been eating," Sikich said.

The new GPS collar, Sikich reports, has been working great so far.

martha.groves@latimes.com

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