The Mountain Lion That Could

My trip to L.A. would not have been complete without meeting the cities most “wild” and elusive celebrity, a big cat who hasn’t let fame go to his head.

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P-22 on his home turf – Griffith Park the second largest Urban Park in the US

P-22 also known as the Hollywood Hills Cougar, was first spotted in 2012 by camera traps set up by the Griffith Park Natural History Survey’s Wildlife Connectivity Study. P-22 had been looking for a new territory, dispersing from the Santa Monica Mountains, when he did something remarkable and crossed two of the busiest freeways in the US, the 405 and the 101.

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P-22’s journey to Griffith Park from the Santa Monica Mountains across two major highways and through a highly developed urban area Image – NWF

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First images of P-22 in Griffith Park taken in 2012 – Photo Griffith Park Connectivity Study – NWF

P-22, the mountain Lion that could, survived the freeways and made it to Griffith Park where he decided to take up residency in an area that represents 3% of a normal size home range for a mountain lion. Surrounded and trapped by the busy city of Los Angeles in an urban park that gets millions of visitors a year P-22 also managed to remain out of sight. His anonymity wouldn’t last long as his story spread and his celebrity cemented when photographer Steve Winter captured him, in the now iconic photo, with the Hollywood sign in the background.

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P-22 in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic Photo – Steve Winter

From that moment on P-22 became the poster cat for the plight facing urban wildlife trying to survive in and around the big city. He would also become the center of the National Wildlife Federations (NWF) Save LA Cougars campaign, an initiative to ensure mountain lions have a future in California by providing a much-needed wildlife crossing at the 101 freeway. While it’s amazing to think a mountain lion lives in Griffith Park, he shouldn’t be trapped there. In the future the crossing will help ensure these cats are better connected to wild spaces more suited for them.

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P-22’s home is surrounded by a sea of endless human development

To find out more about Save LA Cougars I met up with P22 (the cutout – no real mountain lions were used in the making of this story) and Leigh Wyman California Program Assistant, Urban Wildlife at the NWF. We decide to meet in Griffith Park at the entrance close to the Los Feliz neighborhood where a few months earlier P-22 took up residence under the crawl space of a house. I spot the familiar cutout of P-22 propped up against the picnic table and he is not alone, some children have gathered around excited and curious about the big cat.

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Camera traps catch P-22 feeding on deer in Griffith Park – Photo Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

I will find out that P-22 draws a lot of attention when he is out and about and, when I ask Leigh about being upstaged by a life-size cardboard cut out of a mountain lion she tells me “it’s great actually and it brings out people’s concern about mountain lions…it gets a dialogue going especially after the Los Feliz crawl space incident.”

While the cut out is a lot of fun, the basis of the Save LA Cougars campaign is a serious one. Mountain lions are in trouble and facing a multitude of challenges from habitat loss, vehicular deaths, intra-species killings, inbreeding and poisoning by rodenticides. Barriers like freeways add to these problems by restricting the ability of mountain lions to move around freely from one territory to another. The link provided by the crossing is going to be vital to the survival of the species.

Leigh explains that mountain lions are one of California’s last big predators and that possibility of loosing them has led to discussion and speculation on what it would do the ecosystems. As we are finding out everywhere predators like mountain lions play a major role in maintaining the health of ecosystems and loosing them could have negative and irreversible consequences.

“If mountain lions don’t get help inbreeding can also occur and then they are in trouble genetically. For example fathers will mate with daughters, which leads to kinked tails, and other health issues. Since there isn’t an abundant amount of cats something needs to be done to ensure they will continue to be around.” Left unchecked inbreeding could be a cause that leads to the species demise.

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P-22 last year looking good after recovering from a bad case of mange – Photo National Park Service

The National Park Service conducted a 12 year study of mountain lions in and around the Santa Monica Mountains capturing, collaring and tagging about 30 plus cats, give or take a few that have been lost. “With the GPS data the biologist collected they can see the cats as points on a map over all locations. The data shows the lineage of the cats, what it means for genetic variation and how it helps the population. It also shows that the cats come right up to the freeways to cross but instead turnaround.”

Cost of connectivity Early this year the campaign got a boost when the California Department of Transportation received a  one million dollar grant from the State Coastal Conservancy. The money pays for the environmental assessment and initial design of the what the actual crossing structure will look like. Once that phase is over the campaign will need an additional 2.5 to 3.5 million to get shovel ready plus more beyond that. Early estimates put a tunnel crossing in at around 10 million, however I am told the final cost of the crossing along with the actual design is still yet to be determined.

Location location location The campaign should be shovel ready by sometime in 2018 and will break ground at the Aougra Hills exit at Liberty Canyon on the other side of the 101 freeway. Based on the data collected and the fact that there have been more than a few mountain lions killed by vehicles near the proposed crossing, Liberty Canyon has been determined to be the last best place to help wildlife cross the freeways.

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Beth Pratt-Bergstrom  NWF’s California Director with P22 at one of the LA freeways he crossed – Photo NWF

All wildlife wins “There are big areas of protected private and public land that work as funnels for mountain lions and other wildlife out of the Santa Monica Mountains. While mountain lions are the priority because they are endangered, the crossing will benefit all wildlife like deer, fox, bobcats, coyotes right down to the smallest amphibians and that’s what make this project fantastic.”

Does the crossing mean more mountain lions in the city? I am told that there was some concern about that but there is a very good possibility that the crossing will “lessen human and mountain lion interactions because they won’t need to come into our space, they will have a better free flow into the more wild areas.”

Will the cats use the crossing? “Since we can’t go around asking the mountain lions or tell them where to cross,  we rely on the scientific data collected on both the mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains and where the hot spots are needed for connectivity.  You also look at the data from crossings built elsewhere and you can see they work. Science has proved crossing can be successful.” Biologist have collected and pinpointed the best possible location for the crossing and will use camera’s to monitor activity as well as continue to collect blood samples to track the cats DNA.

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Banff National Park’s wildlife crossing structures. Cougars are quick learners, taking approximately three years to adapt to the crossing. Image © Parks Canada

I am told that there has been mainly all positive support for the project and that California is ready for this to happen. “California is opening the door to a new way of thinking about transportation, city planning and the environment – it becomes part of people’s mentality.” Looking at the state of the Florida Panther which is highly endangered she says people in California “do not want mountain lions here to get to that point, and the open-minded perspective on incorporating wildlife into daily life is really exciting.”

Steve Winter’s photos helped propel public knowledge of the campaign and was extremely helpful when it came to “raising awareness with complete strangers.” Leigh tells me that she started P-22’s Facebook page and in 3 weeks it had 3,000 likes from all of over the US and the rest of the world. “In L.A. it’s become part of the local culture in and around the city. I have even heard side conversations about P-22 in the grocery store!”

Leading by example “Traditionally the approach has been to protect islands of land like Yellow Stone or Yosemite which is great, but what they are seeing now is that connectivity is essential for wildlife and ecosystems to flourish. By creating a wildlife crossing in an urban setting we hope to set the platform for other cities to do the same.”

While most other wildlife crossing around the world, like the ones in Europe or Banff National Park, are constructed in more natural and open areas California will be constructing it in a huge urban city, which has not been done before. “It’s a new way for cities to keep an ecological mindset and their urban system overlapping. You have downtown L.A., the Hollywood walk of fame on one side and bobcats, coyotes and a mountain lion in Griffith Park, the two worlds can co-exist and L.A. and California want them to continue to exist.”

The biggest obstacle is the funding, but the NWF has been working with the necessary agencies and is confident that they will come up with the required money. “The campaign is more than a snowball effect it is moving at a fast pace.”

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With P-22 and Leigh Wyman – Thumbs up for #SaveLACougars

Taking one for the team P-22 has been the ultimate spokes cat for the wildlife crossing, urban wildlife and the Save LA Cougars campaign but how does he make out in all of this? Sadly the crossing won’t help him, at six years of age he is the confirmed bachelor of Griffith Park, but his story has provided the juice and momentum for the campaign which will assist in helping his relatives and ancestors that still roam the surrounding areas.

How will P-22’s story end? Leigh laughs when I joke about the movie deal “This is Hollywood though…so you never know.”

Looking for ways to support the Save LA Cougars campaign?

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  • Text “LION” to 25383 to donate $10 to #SaveLACougars on your mobile
  • Download the Save LA Cougars Campaign Flyer to help spread the word
  • Donate directly to NWF and the Save LA Cougars Campaign
  • Volunteer with the NWF or host a fundraiser for P22 at home or with your school
  • Snap a selfie with P22’s cutout and be sure to tag it with #SaveLACougars to help spread awareness on social media

Finally, no self-respecting mountain lion, in Los Angeles, would be without a way to connect with his fans so be sure to check out P-22 on Facebook.

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