Mountain lions barely surviving in urban wildlife environment

Poaching death shines light on the battle to save area’s big cats

By Sylvie Belmond

In addition to threats from traffic, pesticide poisoning and urban encroachment, the small number of mountain lions occupying the 250-square-mile Santa Monica Mountains wilderness area face a new danger: the poacher.

The California Department of Fish and Game and the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever deliberately killed a 7-year-old cougar last month in the Ventura County portion of the Santa Monica Mountains.

The City of Calabasas offered an additional $5,000 reward.

The animal, known to National Park Service researchers as P-15, was collared with a GPS device so biologists could track it. The collar stopped sending signals in August.

Woody Smeck, superintendent for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, said a driver found the mutilated carcass of the mountain lion at the side of a road near Rancho Sierra Vista Road.

Although the body had started to decompose, experts are sure the animal was killed by a poacher.

“The evidence is very clear and strong that it was intentional and human inflicted,” Smeck said, adding that officials won’t disclose how the animal was killed because they don’t want to compromise the investigation.

Mountain lions are designated as a specially protected mammal in California, and it is illegal to hunt or trap them.

“We’re very certain that this animal was killed illegally. People at the department are very upset that this would happen to this magnificent animal,” said Andrew Hughan, spokesperson for the Department of Fish and Game.

Hughan said the reward for information about the poaching could increase in coming weeks because other wildlife groups have indicated they might want to contribute to it.

“We hope the money will inspire someone who may have heard a person bragging about how they killed a mountain lion to call Fish and Game so we can catch the poacher,” he said.

P-15’s death came less than two weeks after a 15-month-old male, known as P-18, was reportedly killed by a vehicle on the 405 Freeway near the Getty Center.

Lauren Newman, spokesperson for the National Park Service, said an estimated seven mountain lions remain in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“That habitat area in general could support up to 10, but probably no more than that,” she said.

A female born last year is currently the only mountain lion in the Santa Monica Mountains with a working collar.

Another female, P-13, and a male, P12, had collars that prematurely failed, so the department doesn’t know exactly where the animals are, Newman said.

Remote camera photos also picked up an uncollared male mountain lion in the eastern end of the mountains.

Smeck said the two males that died last month were critical for breeding.

“We can find anywhere between three to five females in the territory of a male. So the loss of a male is particularly troubling,” he said,

The National Park Service also monitors mountain lions in the Santa Susana Mountains and Simi Hills, following their movement across Highway 101 and up into the national forests to the north.

” Two lions up there have working collars,” Newman said.

The Santa Monica Mountains became a national park in 1978, and since that time no human has been attacked by a mountain lion in the area, said Smeck, adding that his agency rarely receives reports of mountain lion sightings because the felines are shy and nocturnal.

Last Friday a gardener told several dog walkers at Liberty Canyon in Agoura that he saw a mountain lion near Paul Revere Way.

Liberty Canyon has an underpass beneath the 101 Freeway that allows wildlife to roam between the Santa Monicas and other public lands.

The National Park Service also monitors bobcats.

While the local bobcat population was on the rebound for several years, recent findings suggest many of these animals have been dying due to mite infections, Smeck said.

“Their immunity to mites may have been compromised by urban toxins,” he said.

Anyone with information regarding the death of P-15 should call the Department of Fish and Game at (888) 334-2258.

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