Tracking cougar’s wild nightlife in Los Angeles
A 125-pound, 4-year-old mountain lion living in L.A.’s Griffith Park is the most urban mountain lion in Southern California and possibly beyond — surviving and thriving in a small patch of habitat surrounded by freeways.
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — For more than a year and a half, the solitary mountain lion known as P-22 has made himself right at home in Griffith Park within view of Hollywood’s Capitol Records building.
By night, he cruises the chaparral-covered canyons, dining on mule deer, raccoon and coyote. By day, while tots ride the Travel Town train and hikers hit the trails, he hunkers down amid dense vegetation.
To researchers’ knowledge, the 125-pound 4-year-old is the most urban mountain lion in Southern California and possibly beyond — surviving and thriving in a small patch of habitat surrounded by freeways and densely packed human beings that he reached, somewhat miraculously, by crossing the 101 and 405 freeways.
P-22 is giving scientists insight into the life and eating habits of a puma on the prowl. And he is serving as an unwitting but alluring subject for a National Geographic wildlife photographer whose trail cameras have captured jaw-dropping nighttime shots of the animal, including one that features the Hollywood sign.
“He has it quite easy for a young lion in Griffith Park,” said Jeff Sikich, a National Park Service biologist tracking P-22. “There’s no competition, and there seems to be plenty of prey for him.”
Sikich, part of a National Park Service team that has captured and collared more than 20 cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains during a long-term study, is among a small group of scientists who have studied P-22’s behavior since March 2012.
If hikers, equestrians or other park users have encountered P-22 during the day, they haven’t alerted Sikich. He said that there has been “possibly one credible sighting,” but that the lion has been “doing what a lion should do: finding his natural prey and staying elusive.”
Biologists say P-22 probably entered the park in February 2012, after a journey of 20 miles or so from farther west in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Sometime later, the mountain lion triggered a remote camera set up for a wildlife survey. On Feb. 29, 2012, Miguel Ordenana, a biologist working on the survey, began culling a couple of weeks’ worth of mundane images of deer and coyotes. Hoping for a bobcat, he was startled to see the massive hindquarters and tail of a much larger animal. He later found the first photo of the lion, which showed its face.
“From what I’d been told and what I knew, it was seemingly nearly impossible for a mountain lion to be there,” he said.
Although a dead cougar was found in the park in 1995, and parkgoers reported cougar sightings in 2004, this was the first photographic evidence of a lion inhabiting the park. In fact, the photos were the first known images of any mountain lion within the mountain system east of Cahuenga Pass, the National Park Service said.
Sikich set humane traps with cameras, rigged to send images to his cellphone. At 2 o’clock one morning in March 2012, his cellphone rang, and he and other scientists hurried to the site, a Department of Water and Power property just west of the park. Sikich used a blowpipe to administer a sedative to the mountain lion and attached a collar with GPS and very high frequency radio signal technology.
The collar regularly sends data to a website via satellite or cellphone tower. Biologists remotely track an average of eight locations a day, mostly at night when the animal is active. They watch particularly for “location clusters,” indicating spots where the lion has been feeding.
Using the location data as a guide, they have bushwhacked or crawled through poison oak and thick vegetation to find what was on P-22’s menu: deer, coyote and a big raccoon.
Ordenana described the scene on the website Urban Carnivores.
“There’s a possibility that, even though we say mountain lions are deer specialists, they probably are more of a generalist carnivore than we think,” Ordenana said.
Researchers aren’t the only ones thrilled by the unprecedented opportunities P-22 provides with his ongoing presence in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park.
Steve Winter, a contributing photographer to National Geographic magazine, has gotten several perfectly framed shots of the cougar on his nocturnal rounds, with the lights of Hollywood as a backdrop. One will be published in the magazine’s December issue.
For now, P-22 remains what Ordenana calls the “ultimate living ambassador for Griffith Park wildlife and urban mountain lions.”
Sikich knows that biology will almost certainly dictate a relocation from P-22’s 8-square-mile home to much larger terrain.
“Eventually, he’s going to want to breed,” Sikich said. “And that might bring him out of there.”