It was happy news just 15 months ago when mountain lion P-55 was discovered in the Santa Monica Mountains. The two-year-old, along with another male (P-56), who may have been his brother, appeared to be thriving.
But as I wrote in May 2017, the chances that those two would live long, healthy lives were not great. Mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains are facing challenges that could lead to their extinction within 50 years.
One of those challenges is traveling beyond their limited habitat. To do so, they must make it safely across busy, eight-lane Los Angeles freeways. Since 2002, 17 mountain lions have died trying to make these crossings, including P-39, who left behind three orphaned kittens in December 2016.
Within a couple months of her death, two of her kittens were also struck and killed by cars on the same stretch of the 118 freeway.
P-55, however, had much better luck. He gained fame last summer by becoming only the fourth mountain lion to safely cross the 101 freeway during the 15 years they’ve been tracked by the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA), a unit of the National Park Service (NPS). And he was the only known lion to do this not just once, but twice.
“The overwhelming pattern we’ve observed through GPS tracking is lions coming up to the edge of a freeway and turning around,” Dr. Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with the NPS, said at the time. P-55 “actually headed north and then came back to south of the freeway again!” according to a SMMNRA tweet.
Shortly before P-55 crossed the freeway last August, a home’s security camera caught him nearly falling into a backyard hot tub after his paw broke through the cover.
Be an informed activist.
In photos a homeowner took in February, P-55 can be seen peering through a sliding glass door at a dog. (No pets or people were harmed during P-55′s sojourns into these neighborhoods adjacent to his habitat.)
“It was a beautiful animal for sure, but it threatened my family.”
Mountain lion encounter renews debate about proper wildlife management in the Santa Monica Mountains. https://t.co/v5I21CKmZa pic.twitter.com/l4vqdzpIkN
— Thousand Oaks Acorn (@TOAcornNews) February 9, 2018
Sadly, concerns about P-55 being able to live a long life proved to be justified. His remains were recently found in the Santa Monica Mountains — but it wasn’t a vehicle that killed him.
“Possible causes of death to this seemingly healthy animal include rodenticide poisoning or perhaps a fight with another male, although there were no signs of a struggle,” SMMNRA spokeswoman Kate Kuykendall said in a statement.
Because young male mountain lions like P-55 can’t easily leave and find new territories, they remain where there already are dominant males, which results in fatal fights. For this reason, although the average lifespan for wild mountain lions is up to 10 years, it’s rare for males in the Santa Monica Mountains to live past the age of two.
The ingestion of rat poison is yet another major cause of mountain lion deaths in the Santa Monica Mountains and surrounding areas. Rodenticides make their way up the food chain when predators eat poisoned rats and other animals. During 20 years of research, the NPS found that the vast majority of mountain lions in the area – 92 percent of them – have been exposed to at least one of the anti-coagulant compounds found in rodenticides.
We’ll never know what killed P-55. His tracking collar failed to send a “mortality signal” to wildlife officials, and because his body was so decomposed when a biologist found him, it would be impossible to perform a necropsy.
The sad fact is that P-55, like so many other mountain lions that make their homes in the Santa Monica Mountains, died of unnatural causes.
Take Action: Build That Bridge!
It’s too late for P-55, but a planned wildlife corridor will help save the lives of mountain lions and other wild animals crossing the busy 101 freeway. The $60 million, 165-foot-wide, vegetated bridge in Agoura Hills will be mostly paid for with donations.
To help raise those funds, the National Wildlife Federation has joined with other advocacy groups in what the Los Angeles Times called “one of the most ambitious fundraising campaigns ever held on behalf of local wildlife.”
According to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the earliest the corridor could be completed is in 2022. But as the death of P-55 shows, wildlife is in dire need of that bridge to give them access to other territories.
Photo credit: National Park Service