Editorial: Let’s build a better future for P-99 and L.A.’s other mountain lions

Close-up of P-99, a female mountain lion
P-99, a female mountain lion estimated to be around 2 to 3 years old, was found in the western portion of the Santa Monica Mountains.
(Jeff Sikich / National Park Service)

The newest mountain lion to be enlisted into the National Park Service study of Southern California cougars is a young female, maybe 2 to 3 years old, with hazel eyes and a cold stare in the photo that serves as her official portrait. Of course, she can’t tell us what she’s thinking, but the gravity of her expression is appropriate — life for a mountain lion in and around Los Angeles is daunting.

She was captured Sept. 8 in the western Santa Monica Mountains and officially dubbed P-99, meaning that she is the 99th lion to be part of the park service’s 19-year study of these amazing creatures. The lions are outfitted with GPS radio collars that allow scientists to track where they go, what they do, how they survive and when they don’t.

There’s something exciting about her being P-99. The National Park Service is just one lion away from P-100. Will there be champagne and cake (or deer meat) for the lucky, if unsuspecting 100th subject — or maybe just for the tireless National Park Service scientists and researchers who have tracked them in and around the Santa Monica Mountains?

That doesn’t mean there are 99 lions out there being studied. Most from the study are now dead. And there are other lions in the area that have never been captured and collared. Today there are 13 collared lions in the study along with a gaggle of kittens mostly born in the summer of 2020 who got ear tags and P numbers but not GPS collars when they are so young and growing. (When they are older, they may be recaptured and collared.) At around 12 years of age, P-22, the famous mountain lion in Griffith Park, is currently the oldest and longest-studied cougar.

Survival takes fortitude and luck. Over the last two decades, cats have been poisoned by eating prey that ingested toxic rodenticides, and killed by traffic on roads and freeways. They have suffered injuries from wildfires and battled other lions over territory. Killing livestock has gotten them in huge trouble with ranchers, some of whom have sought permits to kill them. Hemmed in by freeways, lions who normally have huge ranges (a male’s territory runs from 150 to 200 square miles) can’t travel to other locales to seek genetically different mates, and some now show signs of inbreeding.

But as P-99 grows into full adulthood, she could find life in the nexus of urban and wild California easier to navigate. In January, Caltrans expects to break ground on an $87-million wildlife crossing over the 101 Freeway at Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills. The bridge, landscaped with native vegetation, would offer lions and other animals a safe alternative to darting across a treacherous eight-lane stretch of freeway to get from one habitat to another and hopefully find genetically diverse mates. The funds to pay for the crossing come from a combination of public, philanthropic and other private sources.

There are other efforts to help this population of pumas survive. The Center for Biological Diversity and the Mountain Lion Foundation petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to list mountain lion subpopulations along the Central Coast and in Southern California as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. The commission voted last year to study the animals for listing, and that review should be complete early next year. Luckily, during the review period, the animals in those subpopulations get the protections of the Endangered Species Act — which puts limitations on permits to kill them. Experts work with ranchers to find ways to deter attacks on livestock by lions. One clever approach is to paint eyes on the backsides of cattle to trick lions into thinking they’ve been detected by their prey.

It’s a rare and wondrous thing to live among wild creatures in an urban landscape like Los Angeles. Hopefully P-99 will live to have kittens to fill out the puma roster.