The increasingly endangered mountain lion population of the Santa Monica Mountains has experienced another major loss. P-56 is dead. He is the first radio-collared mountain lion to be killed in the Santa Monica Mountains under the California Fish and Wildlife Department’s (CDFW) “three strikes” policy, implemented in 2017.
P-56 was first caught and outfitted with a GPS tracking collar by National Park Service (NPS) ecologists in April 2017. He was one of two male mountain lions in the study, and is thought to be the father of P-70, P-71, P-72 and P-73, and the mate of female P-19. His death has been described as a crushing blow for this small and isolated population of big cats.
P-56 was sentenced to death after being implicated in “nine depredation incidents resulting in the loss of 12 animals,” over a two-year period, according to what little information was provided by the CDFW.
Although the report does not provide details, the CDFW has confirmed that the location is near Camarillo, in the far Ventura County section of the Santa Monica Mountains, and that the animals killed were sheep.
The killing of P-56 has ignited a firestorm of controversy. The conservation community is outraged at the killing. There are multiple calls for an investigation into the CDFW’s handling of P-56 and accusations that the matter was handled “in the dark,” without notifying any other stakeholders, despite the special status of this small population of mountain lions, and the fact that this particular cat was part of the NPS study.
NPS biologists only found out about the killing after it occurred. They were informed that P-56 was killed on January 27. Mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains have been a part of an almost 18-year-long NPS study that looks at how the small population is faring in a highly fragmented region. Although NPS is conducting research on the local mountain lion population, CDFW is responsible for managing the state’s wildlife, including mountain lions.
“The loss of a breeding male is a concern for the study, especially when the population is already very small,” said Jeff Sikich, the lead field biologist for the project. “There are always animals out there that are not being tracked. Currently, there is only one adult male in the Santa Monica Mountains that we are tracking and that is P-63.”
Kim Lamorie, the president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation is reaching out to state and local officials to close loopholes and prevent an incident like this one from happening again.
“In speaking to the CDFW, I discovered that in the case of P-56, they actually asked the ‘rancher landowner’ if they wanted to notify any agency or researchers first that might have been able to remedy the situation, and the landowner said no,” Lamoirie told the Messenger Mountain News. “It should be mandatory to consult with the National Park Service, our resident experts on mountain lions, and it was especially egregious in this case that they didn’t, because P-56 was collared. Killing P-56 was totally unnecessary and it can never happen again.
“Landowners need to take responsibility for setting up hobby farms and businesses in the wildland urban interface, “Lamorie said. “Clearly that was not the case here.”
Lamorie is calling for depredation permit requests to require public notice. “The CDFW should not be allowed to make decisions like this again without public notice,” she said. “If someone is requesting a depredation permit to kill our threatened mountain lions, that information should be public.”
Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, California Director for the National Wildlife Federation, expressed frustration over the lack of transparency. “The community would have helped if we had been allowed to know,” she told the Messenger Mountain News. “This didn’t have to happen. Livestock conflicts can’t end with the killing of mountain lions. We are lethally penalizing mountain lions for being mountain lions when we are the ones who have moved into their landscape.”
The Topanga Town Council (TTC) has also weighed in on the issue. “The issuance of a depredation order to kill a vital member of the very mountain lion population which so many are spending so much [time and money] to preserve defies logic, especially when only a small number of common livestock had been taken by P-56 over a two-year period,” TTC Board members Stacy Sledge, Carrie Carrier, Alisa Land Hill and John Waller wrote in a letter to state Senator Henry Stern and Assemblymember Richard Bloom.
“The public must be appraised of what happened, who within the DFW was responsible, and how our legislators are going to ensure it never happens again,” they wrote.
Since 1990, mountain lion hunting has been banned in California, and mountain lions are designated by the state as a “specially protected mammal.” However, a mountain lion depredation permit from the CDFW may be requested if a mountain lion harms pets or livestock.
In 2017, the three strikes provision was intended to add protection for the mountain lion populations in the Santa Monica and Santa Ana mountains—home to the most isolated and at-risk populations. In these areas, after a mountain lion has killed or injured livestock or pets, the property owner must first use non-lethal means to deter the lion before a lethal permit is issued.”
According to the officials at CDFW who investigate depredation incidents, “the landowner implemented measures including bringing in as many livestock as possible, penning any remaining livestock close to the barn and houses, and utilizing trained guard dogs, hot wire fencing, motion-activated lights and auditory (radio) hazing.” They were not required to build lion-proof enclosures, the most effective way to protect livestock.
Johanna Turner, a photographer who has spent years documenting the local mountain lion population, summed up the concerns many are expressing. “The killing of P-56 is not just a sad event for wildlife supporters in the Santa Monica Mountains,” she told the Messenger Mountain News. “It is a frightening reminder of how close we are to losing mountain lions here entirely. What is worse is that both the livestock losses and the loss of this important adult male were entirely preventable. It is disheartening for those of us who volunteer our time, equipment and efforts to help this population survive to see once again that it can all be undone with one decision like a depredation permit.”
Turner urges anyone with a domestic/wild animal conflict to reach out to the many groups who are willing to help before resorting to killing a mountain lion. “That is destructive and ultimately ineffective since other wildlife, and other mountain lions will still take advantage of unsecured domestic animals,” she said. “I have first-hand experience with several ranches coexisting with sheep, goats, horses, and mountain lions with no problems. It can be done. We have to do better.”
There is currently a push to have Southern California’s mountain lions listed as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act, to give them extra protection. The petition is expected to be heard at the April 16 California Fish and Game Commission meeting in Sacramento. Written comments can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org; or mailed to California Fish and Game Commission, P.O. Box 944209, Sacramento, CA 94244-2090.