Secrets of the LA mountain lions

p-32-as-kitten.jpgSeth Riley, the National Park Service scientist who tracks and studies the pumas in the Santa Monica Mountains, is also an assistant adjunct professor (yes, a real title) at UCLA. In a new interview with Alison Hewitt of UCLA Newsroom, he gives some more details about Griffith Park mountain lion P-22 going under the house in Los Feliz last month and about the two sibling cubs who recently (and separately) crossed the 101 freeway to begin new lives outside the restricted gene pool of the Santa Monica Mountains lion population.

The researchers don't know exactly where all the tracked cougars are at all times, but close. They receive a ping from the radio collars at two-hour intervals through the night and once at 2 p.m. Sending signals any more often would mean the collars have to be replaced more frequently, which requires trapping and sedating each cat. "That’s stressful for them. And us," Riley said.

Those sibling cubs, P-32 (the male kitten pictured with Riley in early 2014, above) and P-33, crossed the freeway this spring near the Conejo Grade in Ventura County.

He didn’t cross in the same place as her. But it’s possible he had some idea that she crossed. We don’t know much about how they perceive each other. It seems like they pick up on olfactory cues, so that may have been a factor. But that area is also where they live and explore, so it’s not unusual that P-32 was sniffing around the area. They’re about 18 months old and dispersing from their mother now, so they’re looking for their own territory.

We get tons of awesome data from the GPS collars, but we still don’t know what they’re thinking. But in the areas that P-33 and P-32 crossed, we’ve had many of our mountain lions come right up to the freeway and then walk away. And part of what made it so exciting to see 33 and 32 get across was that they seemed to have been trying hard to get out of that area. They lived with their mother, P-19, in the west end of the Santa Monica Mountains, and that’s where the [2013 Springs] Fire burned about a sixth of the park. It seemed like they were bouncing off the freeway and agricultural areas. And then one day we looked at the GPS data and P-33 was across 101.

When P-22 was discovered in the crawl space under that house in Los Feliz last month, it wasn't really a surprise. Cats like dark, cool places during the day. He prowls the neighborhoods around Griffith Park, as well as the park's wild canyons, but the researchers don't know for certain whether he has been to that house before.

We can’t be sure...since you can’t get a good satellite signal under a house. But we know he wasn’t living there for months, because we have eight GPS points on him every day for the last three years, so we know he’s spending most of his time in the park. He was going regularly into the neighborhoods that jut into the park, but this particular neighborhood he had only been into once or twice. We have a data point at 6 a.m. the day he was found, and he wasn’t under the house yet. Then once the media left around 1 a.m. and all the lights and noise and craziness stopped, we have a data point at 2 a.m. showing he’d left.

Q: But he regularly goes into the residential neighborhoods?

He spends the vast majority of his time in the park – that’s something we see with all the lions, and P-22’s numbers will be a little different, but in general, less than 1 percent of their data points are around urban areas. But P-22 has definitely been in the residential areas. Keep in mind, it’s super steep with these big fancy houses up on the road, and deep canyons in between. He makes kills in those canyons, it looks like. It’s not surprising that there would be deer in those ravines, although unfortunately we can’t usually get to those kills because they’re behind everyone’s fences, and we’re not really excited about knocking on people’s doors and saying, “Hey, there’s a mountain lion behind your house.”

Riley says, by the way, that no pet remains have been found at the nearly 500 lion feeding sites the NPS researchers have studied. "Something like 90 percent of the kills are deer, and the rest are things like coyotes, raccoons or badgers," he says. He appreciates that having lions in the LA area at all is "pretty amazing."

"Los Angeles is probably the only mega-city in the world with a major carnivore," Riley says. "That speaks to the amazing conservation of wildlife and habitat in Los Angeles, but it’s something we may not have much longer."

Noted: I am the editor of UCLA Newsroom.

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