Living in Harmony

In the case of the mountain lion known as P-45, no news really is good news. The big cat–P for puma, 45 for the number assigned by the National Park Service’s (NPS) research program–hasn’t been seen since he made national headlines in November, when activists and concerned residents rallied to prevent the cougar from being killed after he was implicated in the death of a dozen pet alpacas in the Malibu Springs area near Decker Canyon Road.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife issued a depredation permit following the alpaca incident, giving the property owner 10 days to track and kill the mountain lion, but activists and residents rushed to defend the cat.

An overflow crowd of around 300 packed an empty warehouse at Paramount Ranch on the night of November 30 to protest the death sentence. The temperature hovered near freezing but tempers burned hot in the unheated space, as conservationists and animal rights activists co-opted the microphone and took center stage at the event originally intended to be a National Park Service-sponsored mountain lion awareness workshop.
“We weren’t really expecting more than a dozen people,” NPS Superintendent David Szymanski said after the event.

As a result of the meeting—and the media frenzy that accompanied it—P-45 received a reprieve, and the alpaca owner, with the help of a host of organizations and volunteers, including Los Angeles County Third District Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s office, the National Park Service (NPS), the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), and the Mountain Lion Foundation (MLF), was given help to build four secure pens for her surviving animals.
“It was a happy ending but hasn’t solved the problem,” NWF California Director Beth Pratt-Bergstrom told the Messenger Mountain News.

NPS researchers have known for years that the small population of cougars in the local mountains has an alarming low level of genetic diversity, but a study published in August 2016 in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, instilled a new sense of urgency in the conservation community with the conclusion that the big cats have a nearly 100-percent chance of going extinct in the Santa Monica Mountains over the next 50 years unless more lions become part of the gene pool. The research team, which included NPS ecologists Jeff Sikich and Seth Riley, predicted that the impact of decreasing genetic variability will snowball within the next 15 years, becoming irreversible within 35 years.
P-45 is one of just three male mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains and is the only known living cat who has successfully crossed the 101 Freeway, bringing fresh genetic material into the area. Ecologists cautioned that his death could potentially hasten the end of the local cougar population.

The Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing project is intended to end the population’s isolation by enabling young cats to disperse out of the Santa Monica Mountains and new animals to enter the area, bringing new genes, but the wildlife bridge over the 101 is still several years away.

Pratt-Bergstrom said the overpass is moving forward on schedule, but that the progress is slow because the Caltrans-led project is complex and requires approvals from numerous government agencies.

The NWF is a major proponent for the Liberty Canyon project. The non-profit recognized the potentially catastrophic impact that could result from the loss of P-45 and offered to fund the alpaca pens.

“We’ve worked closely with NPS and Sheila Kuehl’s office,” Pratt-Bergstrom said. “We went to them and asked what we could do to help. We took some positives away. I really applaud the owner of the alpacas for being willing to find a different solution.”
One of the positives is a bill to amend the state’s Fish and Game Code to give the Department of Fish and Wildlife more flexibility in dealing with requests for depredation permits. Currently, the permits must be issued within 48 hours if there is evidence that a mountain lion is responsible for damage to livestock. The property owner then has 10 days to track and kill a cougar.

Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) introduced AB 8 in December. The bill is currently making its way through the legislative process. If it passes, it gives game wardens discretion to weigh issues like P-45’s unique genetic status, and whether individuals requesting a permit provided their animals with adequate shelter.
Other projects aimed at improving human-cougar relations are also planned. Barbara Osbourne, a spokesperson for Sheila Kuehl’s office, confirmed that an education program is being developed for mountain residents.

“We’re meeting with key stakeholders,” she said. “The goal is peaceful coexistence. We’re moving forward.”

Pratt-Bergstom is also optimistic. “The community came together and said they want mountain lions,” she said. “It’s really encouraging, but everyone needs to be on board. We need to educate everyone who lives in mountain lion country about safety issues. Living with wildlife is a responsibility, it does come with some inconvenience. Not a lot—it’s simple, but it comes with some work,” she said.

Pratt-Bergstrom explained that a big part of the process is addressing misconceptions. “People think it’s easy for a predator to find prey, but it isn’t. It’s a lot of work,” she said. “If they find something in a pen it’s much easier to catch. It’s instinct. I live in mountain lion country and have four dogs and two cats. We have predator fencing. The cats are indoor-only cats. The dogs come in at night.”

Lynn Cullens, the executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, which built the lion-proof pens for the alpacas, agreed.

“The challenge is getting the information out, countering myths,” she said. Cullens explained that alpacas are a natural prey species for cougars—similar in size to deer—and the big cats are naturally attracted to them.

“The Back to the Land movement is really admirable,” she said, referring to a recent increase in the amount of backyard livestock nationwide. “People want a better way of life, but it needs to be put into context,” she explained.

“It’s the coolest thing in the world, living on the edge of the wilderness, but with the joy comes responsibility. Our decisions living on the edge reverberate. Neighbors need to begin to work together. Part of this is getting the word out that all domestic animals need to be protected from dawn to dusk, but to be successful we must do more than get the word out. A pen doesn’t do anyone any good if it isn’t used.”

Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation President Kim Lamorie told the Mountain News that her organization is taking an active role in that dialogue.

“We need to reach out to new residents, as well as to realtors and real estate agents, to make sure they understand the responsibilities and requirements for keeping domestic animals and wildlife safe,” she said.

Victoria Vaughn-Perling with alpacas in their new pen. The conservation community has applauded Vaughn-Perling for her willingness to work to find a non-lethal solution for P-45. Photos by Korinna Domingo, courtesy of the Mountain Lion Foundation.

“Homeowners have to take responsibility. That’s key.”

All the players agree that the P-45 story has helped raise awareness about the plight of the local mountain lions; so did another incident that occurred just days after P-45 received his reprieve: the death of P-39, struck by a vehicle while attempting to cross the 118 freeway near Rocky Peak in the Simi Mountains. Earlier this month, one of her three half-grown kittens met the same fate in the same location.

“It’s a sad time in some respects, but it’s also encouraging,” Pratt-Bergstrom told the Mountain News. “People care about mountain lions. They want them here and they want to protect them.”

RESOURCES
More information on the NWF’s campaign is available online #savelacougars.
Mountain Lion Foundation offers instructions and advice
on building and maintaining cougar-proof animal enclosures at mountainlion.org.
The National Park Service’s Keep Me Wild webpage provides safety tips and advice on coexisting with mountain lions.

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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