Since 2002, biologist Jeff Sikich has been employed at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
He’s dealt with a variety of strange situations, including a call to bring his dart gun to tranquilize what turned out to be a three-foot-tall statue of a mountain lion rather than a real mountain lion on one memorable occasion.
However, what he saw on a March day in 2020 was strange and scary. It wasn’t all that surprising, either. He admits that the possibility of this happening had always been in the back of his mind, even if he had hoped it would never happen.
Sikich had set up a cage trap, complete with a roadkilled deer, in the hopes of catching a young male mountain lion.
He used a tranquilizer dart to knock the cat unconscious once it worked.
“Something seemed odd with his tail,” Sikich recalls after thoroughly inspecting the animal. He discovered the tail ended in a 90-degree turn, a clear kink with an angle as exact as a sketch in a geometry textbook.
Furthermore, the young boy only had one testicle. The second one hadn’t come down as smoothly as it should have.
Sikich fitted the cat with a radio-tracking collar and gave him the name P-81 because he was the 81st puma in the area to be trapped and collared.
P-81 isn’t the only mountain lion to exhibit such genetic flaws.
Two more cats with kinked tails appeared after P-81 was captured when Sikich was completing routine assessments of film from several other trail cams. He couldn’t see if their testicles were kinked or not, but the kinked tail was enough for him.
It’s a bad omen for this little colony of apex predators from the Puma concolor subspecies, also known as the puma, panther, cougar, or mountain lion.
It’s been more than 30 years since scientists found genetic abnormalities like these in pumas.
They were discovered by a different puma subspecies, the Florida panther, across the country at the time.
Despite the time and distance between them, the mountain lions are repeating two of the same flaws that the panthers had—defects that were predicted to put them out of business. Stephen J. O’Brien, a genetic epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University who worked with Florida officials to conserve the panthers, said, “It’s a negative indicator.” “It’s a wake-up call,” says the narrator.
The Florida panther’s rescue necessitated a rare human involvement.
The rescue of the mountain lions in Santa Monica will necessitate yet another exceptional human effort—this time of a different kind. Fortunately, there’s a cat up in Hollywood who’s willing to lend a hand, prowling around near the famous Hollywood Hills sign.
Pumas roamed extensively over North and South America as recently as the 1700s.
Their population still spreads from Canada to Argentina, despite their uneven distribution today.
P. concolor isn’t the identical cat everywhere it’s found—there are minor genetic differences—but they’re all silent hunters, quick assassins, and tough combatants with long, slender bodies suited for speed.
Males are six to eight feet long from the tip of their long, hefty tails to the tip of their nose; females are five to seven feet long.
They can sprint at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour.
Mountain lions are lonely creatures who like to be alone. They hunt by themselves, sleeping during the day and emerging at dusk to look for prey. They can live for up to a dozen years in the wild if they aren’t run over or killed by another mountain lion.
Mountain lion cubs are gorgeous little balls of fluffy spotted fur when they are born. When they’re completely matured, though, they scream “predator.”
The body of a mountain lion is designed for hunting, with a light yet robust skeleton anchoring big muscles.
Mountain lions have larger hind legs than other large cats, allowing them to accomplish vertical and horizontal leaps of up to 15 feet and 45 feet, respectively.
They can surprise their victims by flying in from above, seemingly out of nowhere, thanks to their incredible jumping abilities.
The hefty tail of the mountain lion helps it maintain balance during such large jumps. If the prey tries to flee, the cat’s huge paws—nearly five inches wide—provide excellent grip for twists, giving it a distinct advantage during a chase.
The cat’s retractable claws come out to seize whatever it has grabbed when it is ready to kill.
With its formidable jaws, which are equipped with 16 teeth on top and 14 teeth on the bottom, it chomps down firmly.
Pumas are vital to the environments in which they live.
They keep the number of prey under control.
Because they rarely consume a kill in one sitting, preferring to eat what they need and hide the rest, their leftovers provide ready-to-eat meals for over 200 different birds and mammals.
The insects then move in, some of which spend their entire lives in the carcasses left behind.
What’s left is broken down by the insects, releasing nutrients into the soil.
The cats, on the other hand, require a lot of space to make this intricate chain function.
Mountain lion males have a range of about 150 square miles, while females have a range of about 65 square miles. And it’s here that the Santa Monica Mountains’ mountain lions have run into problems.
The 153,000-acre Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is considered the largest urban national park in the United States because it borders enormous Los Angeles.
Its valleys have been paved over to construct some of the country’s busiest roadways, which serves a still-growing jumble of residential and business structures.
Every new house development or shopping center takes away five or ten acres here, and fifteen acres there, fragmenting the terrain and puma populations.
This fragmentation, at its worst, removes males from reproductively available females. As a result, the mountain lion dating pool has shrunk to dangerously low levels—much like the Florida panther.
The majority of Florida panthers dwell in Big Cypress National Preserve, a low-lying, wetland area near the Everglades.
They are the last of the pumas known as “lions” or “catamounts” by Spanish explorers and early inhabitants.
Panthers used to roam the whole Southeast, but by the 1980s, they were the only pumas east of the Mississippi. The panthers’ numbers plummeted to less than 30 when their habitat was lost and their preferred prey left.
According to some estimates, the number is in the single digits. Inbreeding was unavoidable with such a small population.
Fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters, even moms and sons were all mated.
They soon had kinked tails and undescended testicles in their progeny. Some even developed holes in their hearts due to atrial septal abnormalities.
They seemed to have reached a biological brick wall.
A species’ genetic variety ensures that it can adapt to changing conditions and survive. A contagious sickness might quickly wipe out the entire group if it didn’t have it. Panther genetic abnormalities were the obvious signs of an unseen deterioration.
According to O’Brien, male panther sperm exhibited a ratio of 6% normal to 94 percent developmentally deformed. To strengthen the panther population, several experts advocated a captive-breeding scheme.
The plan was to capture wild panther kittens and raise them in a separate facility where they could be selectively bred into a genetically diversified source population that could then be released back into the wild.
The scheme, however, never took off since all of the kittens that were supposed to be utilized for breeding were found to have deformities.
Finally, state officials were able to persuade the US Fish and Wildlife Service to sanction a once-in-a-lifetime experiment.
They sent a skilled tracker named Roy McBride to Texas in 1995 to capture eight female cougars and bring them back to Florida, where they would breed with the male panthers.
They thought this strategy would succeed since the two subspecies had probably interbred in the past when their ranges were close together. Five of the eight females did produce hybrid offspring that was defect-free.
The healthy offspring prompted a panther population explosion. What’s remained of Florida’s wilderness is now patrolled by an estimated 130 to 200 adults.
One of the reasons no such experiment had ever been done before was a fear that it might jeopardize the Endangered Species Act’s legal protections.
Critics feared that progeny resulting from interbreeding between Florida panthers and Texas cougars would not be classified as Florida panthers, and hence would not be protected.
The Fish and Wildlife Service adopted a temporary regulation allowing the trial to continue.
Another concern is that the cougars’ different DNA will suffocate the panthers’ genetic material. Scientists say they have genetic markers that prove they are subspecies unique from each other, even though they are from the same species of cat.
Following that, two separate analyses concluded that no genetic swamping had occurred.
One study looked at genetic samples from roughly 600 individual Florida panthers collected since 1981, tracing the bloodlines of all the panthers alive at the time and comparing them to panthers born after the Texas cats arrived.
The panther population rose threefold, genetic diversity doubled, survival and fitness metrics improved, and inbreeding correlations dropped, according to the study.
To avoid inbreeding and lessen the risk of extinction, the panthers will need five Texas cougars introduced every 20 years, providing there is a place for them as people rapidly expand the landscape.
However, although the Florida panther’s “genetic rescue” program has been effective, California’s mountain lions require a completely different intervention due to habitat fragmentation.
Experts believe the solution to their genetic flaw problem is considerably closer to home. It also entails more concrete, not less.
While completing research on the future of two populations of Santa Monica mountain lions that had been shut off from the main group in surrounding natural areas, John Benson was thinking about what happened to the Florida panthers.
The study’s goal was to predict whether or not they will become extinct in the next 50 years. Benson, then a wildlife ecologist at the University of California, Los Angeles’ La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science, had previously studied panthers while working for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, so he was familiar with the narrative.
What happened with the panthers served as a warning to mountain lions, he believed. Pumas are charismatic megafauna that laypeople often mistake for oversized house cats, according to researchers who study with them.
They’re seeking to control a big number of apex predators, each with its personality and set of requirements.
Pumas are elusive and fearful of humans, which makes understanding them even more difficult.
The public is sometimes afraid of the creatures because of their size, which adds to political pressure on scientists to reduce the chance of a confrontation arising from conservation efforts that raise the population.
Benson, Sikich, Sikich’s National Park Service colleague Seth Riley, and their colleagues described a few possible scenarios in their study. “Their reproduction was quite good… and the population would remain stable,” Benson says, citing the computer model.
The study discovered that they have just a 16 to 21% chance of extinction, which is minimized by their scrubland habitat and the abundance of prey.
“Even though there is a lot of construction and highways all around, roughly 90% of the land within the Santa Monicas is still natural, or comparatively so, and half of it is publicly owned,” Riley explains.
“The Santa Monicas are not big enough by themselves for a healthy population genetically or demographically, and they are also not well enough connected to the other neighboring natural areas,” Riley says.
Because of what scientists call “inbreeding depression,” the modeling result altered substantially when the authors considered the mountain lions’ lack of genetic variety.
Aside from the 1995 Florida panthers, the populations in the Santa Monica Mountains and the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County already had the lowest genetic diversity known for mountain lions.
Benson claims that after accounting for the absence of genetic diversity, every run of the model revealed that if inbreeding depression set in, the cats would most likely become extinct in 50 years.
When the research was published, Benson and his co-authors had no idea that the first evidence of genetic abnormalities would appear so quickly.
However, they knew it was inevitable because the main roadblock to increasing mountain lion genetic diversity has been in the way since 1950.
Los Angeles is a metropolis of freeways, and U.S. 101, a key north-south artery connecting L.A. to San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest, is the most important of them all.
The route has eight to ten lanes of traffic and over 300,000 vehicles pass through each day. The roadway prohibits the Santa Monica mountain lions from crossing to mate with the bigger population of mountain lions in the Los Padres National Forest, which covers 2,970 square miles.
Riley explains that once biologists started installing radio collars on the dozen or so mountain lions they were tracking in the Santa Monica Mountains, they were able to follow the males as they traveled to the 101, saw the torrent of traffic, and then turned around.
Riley said of the cats in the Santa Monica Mountains, “The habitat we have there for them appears good.” “They have a lot of deer.” However, because to the 101, their only possible partners are close relatives, resulting in inbreeding.
Then, in 2009, something miraculous occurred.
P-12, the 12th puma they’d captured and collared, discovered a way to cross the road in Liberty Canyon, where natural habitat may be found on both sides of the roadway. Riley adds, “That was a fairly huge deal because he not only crossed and survived, but he also reproduced.”
P-12 has since been followed by a few other mountain lions, especially at night when traffic is lighter. Riley claims that one person figured out how to cross the 101 using a six-foot-wide culvert and completed 42 crossings in less than a year.
However, that cat died as a result of injuries sustained in a forest fire, and no other cats have entered that deep, dark culvert since.
Attempting to help the Santa Monica mountain lions by transporting them to a location with a more diverse puma population or transporting individuals from a more diverse population to breed with the Santa Monica cats, as the Florida officials did, seemed like too much human intervention, with too much risk of trauma to the wild animals, according to California biologists.
Nonetheless, the scientists had a suggestion for how to help the Santa Monica mountain lions: build a secure crossing point for them on the 101.
The cats would be reconnected to the bigger population of pumas in the Sierra Madre Range to the north, allowing them to find mates capable of increasing the genetic diversity of the smaller group.
The notion of a tunnel was examined by the Fish and Wildlife Service and transportation officials, but they rejected it.
It would be too expensive and inconvenient for highway drivers, and there was no guarantee that the animals would utilize it. There was only one solution: build an overpass above the 101, allowing mountain lions on both sides of the highway to come and go as they pleased.
The lions would be funneled toward the overpass by fencing on both ends, preventing them from wandering into traffic.
There would be no need for humans to capture and relocate the cats. “Ideally, if we get people to build this vegetated overpass on their own,” Sikich says.
After consultation with animal crossing specialists and the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, officials devised plans for a 165-foot-wide overpass that would be 16 feet above the 101’s pavement.
The north end links to a hillside, and the flyover dips down a bit until it reaches the south side, according to Sikich.
It will be the world’s largest wildlife bridge if finished, costing an estimated $87 million.
The crossing would be built and planted to blend perfectly with the surrounding countryside, and sound-blocking walls would be installed to keep the noisy traffic below at bay.
The biologists determined that the optimum location for the overpass would be where P-12 initially crossed the road, in Liberty Canyon, with natural underbrush on both sides of the road.
Without fear of becoming roadkill, the lions could use it at any time of day or night. The land on both sides of this stretch of highway had already been set aside for conservation.
Even better, it is bordered on both sides by extensive swathes of protected habitat, giving it a feasible option for connectivity within the Santa Monica Mountains. In an ideal world, the cats would be unaware that they were on a man-made structure.
In the 1950s, conservationists in France experimented with animal overpasses, and they have since gained appeal throughout Europe. They’re starting to grab on in the United States as well.
For example, in 2018 Utah erected a 320-by-50-foot bridge near Salt Lake City to allow moose, elk, deer, and other species to cross the six-lane Interstate 80.
The Liberty Canyon bridge has only one flaw: Caltrans did not budget for the construction of a highway in the sky whose primary users would be feline predators. This is where the cardboard cat enters the picture.
Beth Pratt of the National Wildlife Federation had previously worked in Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks, so she was familiar with remote wilderness places and their inhabitants.
It was “mind-blowing” to learn that the slopes adjacent to huge Los Angeles were home to mountain lions, she recalls.
“It shifted my perspective on wildlife.” Pratt got in touch with the biologists at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area after becoming the regional executive director of the environmental group’s California Regional Center and asked if there was anything her organization could do to help: “And they said, ‘Well, there’s this little corridor we’re trying to build.'”
Caltrans officials met with her to discuss the situation.
Caltrans has been quite helpful, she says.
“They said, ‘We don’t have the money, but if you obtain it for us, we’ll build it.'” They worked out an agreement in which private contributors would provide 80% of the money (almost $69 million) and public monies for conservation initiatives would provide the remaining 20%. They do not have to raise the entire sum of money before beginning work.
The National Wildlife Federation started a fundraising campaign for the 80 percent, dubbed “Save LA Cougars,” and chose a mascot sure to elicit sympathy: the cougar. P-22, a male mountain lion that, against all odds, settled in Griffith Park near the famed Hollywood sign in 2012.
The cat came from the Santa Monica Mountains population, according to genetic studies, which suggests it traversed both the 101 and another major freeway, I-405, to get to its current location.
Despite its urban surroundings, Griffith Park provides ample opportunities for P-22 to eat and hide during the day.
P-22, on the other hand, is the sole mountain lion in the six-square-mile urban park, making him ideal for the campaign. Pratt explains, “We’re talking about a lonely bachelor cursed to never have a partner.”
“The general people have accepted him. We’ve found the ideal relatable victim.”
Pratt commissioned a life-size cardboard cutout of P-22, which she now transports to fundraising events across Los Angeles and beyond.
She has encouraged celebrities like actor Sean Penn and California Representative Adam Schiff to pose with it, bringing greater attention to the puma’s situation. “We’ve gotten donations from London, Florida,” she adds of the project’s popularity.
A Kansas couple who has never visited California has donated $500,000 to us.”
Every October, Los Angeles holds a “P-22 Day” with a variety of events to raise money and awareness for the mountain lions’ predicament. The festival became virtual last fall, as so many other events have been compelled to do.
According to Pratt, this necessitated a more imaginative approach to the event.
“We hired some game designers to construct a user interface for the game.” P-22 uses a jet pack to get out of the park in one of the games.
Some, but not many, people have questioned the overpass’s value. During the environmental review, Pratt recalls, “there were over 8,000 comments in favor of the proposal and only 15 against it.”
People from all walks of life have rallied around the cause because they care about animals, and “this is a real problem to solve,” she says.
The project’s fundraising totaled $44 million as of May, more than enough to move it to the final design and engineering phase.
Governor Gavin Newsom then signed a state budget in July that included $7 million for the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing.
Caltrans anticipates breaking ground in November. By 2024, the overpass should be ready for the mountain lions to use.
Pratt claims they don’t have a plan B for the cats and don’t expect to need one.
Failure to meet their financial goals “would just delay groundbreaking, not cancel the project,” she says, adding that “we’re not even anticipating any delays at this point.”
However, with the arrival of P-81 and the other two cats with kinked tails, the fundraising effort has turned into a race to save the Santa Monica mountain lions before they are too far gone.
According to Benson, “their genetic diversity is expected to continue to erode.”
“However, no one can predict when it will lead to extinction.
You don’t want to put off deciding until it’s too late.” “I think that bodes well for us being able to accomplish the same thing elsewhere in the country if we can protect huge carnivores near Los Angeles,” he says.
THE AUTHOR IS : Craig Pittman is an environmental writer based in Florida. He is author of Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther (Hanover Square Press, 2020).