It all started with P-001. 

On July 19, 2002, the National Park Service captured a five-year-old male mountain lion — “sometimes referred to as king of the mountains,” the park service later wrote — kicking off what would become decades of well-publicized research across the Santa Monica Mountains and into the Santa Susana Mountains, Simi Hills, Los Padres National Forest and even Griffith Park that would be in turns captivating, devastating and downright thrilling.

Dubbed P-001, he was photographed, collared and released back into the wild that July, the first of more than 100 of the big cats to be tracked in the program from the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA).

“It is presumed he has since passed, but our monitoring suggests he lived a successful life, biologically speaking,” according to the NPS. “He protected and fought for a large range, fathered several kittens, and lived to or beyond the full life expectancy of a mountain lion. That can’t be said for all lions in the Santa Monicas.” The NPS believes P-001 lived to the ripe old age of 12. 

This month marks 20 years that the NPS has tracked mountain lions (also called cougars and pumas) in the SMMNRA. Its first two decades were capped off with the latest puma death, that of P-089, struck and killed attempting to cross the Ventura (101) Freeway in Woodland Hills. The timing of P-089’s death on July 18, just one day before the program celebrated its 20th anniversary, may have been poignant had it not become such a common occurrence.

Since Jan. 1 of this year, four mountain lions have been killed crossing the busy roadways that bisect their natural range across the mountains northeast of Santa Monica. The latest, P-089, was two years old, officially classified as a “sub-adult.”

But traffic deaths, though troubling, are hardly the only way local mountain lions meet their end.

In fact, the NPS’ detailed “puma profiles” — one each for all 104 cats tracked in the study so far — read like a Greek tragedy, rife with poisonings, abandonment and family drama (with plenty of inbreeding for good measure).

P-001, the regal first lion tracked in the study, went on to kill his mate, P-002, along with at least two of their kittens. But the familicide didn’t stop there.

Years later, two of P-001 and P-002’s offspring — now sub-adults — engaged in a violent fight, with one brother killing another. The winner of that duel was only discovered by the NPS after traces of his DNA were found on his brother’s corpse. Later captured and collared, his victory was short-lived: “He succumbed to trauma after being struck by a vehicle on lower Malibu Canyon Road during morning rush hour traffic.”

The two had a third brother, also killed when a driver struck him crossing Malibu Canyon Road.

P-001 went on to breed with his own daughter and his genes are still present in current populations living in the Santa Monicas.

But despite the high drama, this is not theater; it’s what happens when the large, solitary hunters are geographically isolated, unable to spread out, find new mating partners and avoid one another’s territory. Even with no stage, there is an audience. Sometimes from miles away, these scenes play out under the watchful eye of the National Park Service.

Back before the mountain lion study, the park service had been tracking bobcats and coyotes in the mountains as part of a broader carnivore study that began in the mid-1990s. Although there had been mountain lion sightings in the area over the years, it was not clear at the time whether there was even a locally reproducing population in the range, according to NPS scientists Seth Riley and Jeff Sikich. 

According to Sikich, who came to SMMNRA in 2002, another scientist working for the National Park Service on the initial carnivore study first set up remote wildlife cameras in the mountains.

“Sure enough, the park got images of this adult male [puma] roaming through the mountains, and that kind of sparked the start of the study,” Sikich said, adding, “And so, the park decided to attempt to capture and radio collar this individual.” That individual turned out to be P-001.

Sikich, a biologist for the National Park Service, said his main job with the study is hands-on: placing radio collars, hiking to “kill sites” (where cougars have recently eaten), visiting dens to tag kittens and so on. Each radio collar lasts about two years and automatically unclasps from a cougar when the battery fails, giving Sikich’s team limited time to recapture mountain lions and replace collars. Each collar gives a location signal four times an hour, offering a trove of data to Sikich indicating when cats are moving, eating, mating and, yes, dying — after 12 hours of zero recorded movement, Sikich’s cell phone buzzes with a death notice.

“When I came on, in that summer of 2002, we were scouting and setting,” Sikich said. “There was an effort to try to capture mountain lions, place radio collars on them and get at some of these questions: Do we have mountain lions in the Santa Monicas? Are they residents? Where are they going — are they crossing freeways? Are they crossing all these other roads? What’s their landscape and habitat use? Are they in your backyard often or are they in natural areas more often? Are they reproducing? Are they having kittens in these mountains? What are they eating? What are they dying from? What’s their survival? And so to answer all these questions, that’s why these radio collars are so important.”

In the two decades since the start of that study, with the help of the radio collars, remote wildlife cameras, DNA tests, necropsies and other tools, the answers to many of those questions have been found.

Yes, at any given time about 10-15 sub-adults and adults are residing and reproducing locally in the mountains.

Yes, they are crossing freeways and other roads — with some limited success.

No, they do not prefer local backyards; during normal circumstances, mountain lions keep to wild areas almost exclusively.

They are eating local mule deer as their main food source, with other species including livestock sometimes falling prey as secondary choices.

They are dying from abandonment and starvation, fights over territory, traffic collisions and rat poison. 

A call to ban anticoagulant rodenticide — the type of pesticide found in ubiquitous black poison bait boxes — became a rallying cry in mountain communities after the NPS study revealed more and more cases of pumas eating poisoned prey and becoming deathly sick. A 2020 law, AB-1788, now restricts most uses.

Male cougars seldom survive past age two, when they enter adulthood and instinctively begin the process of finding their own territorial range, or else challenge the local adult male. That’s why so often cougars that die crossing roads are “sub-adult males,” setting out to establish their own territory. Such appeared to be the case for P-089, killed earlier this month.

Given that, the lengthy study has revealed what both Sikich and Riley consider to be the single largest issue facing the population: habitat fragmentation due to human development, especially freeways.

In larger natural areas, including the Los Padres National Forest just 20 miles due north from the SMMNRA, pumas can spread out — the scientific term is “disperse” — staying out of each other’s way. Because this is not possible in an ecosystem hemmed in by the ocean on one side and urban sprawl on all others, mountain lions in the Santa Monicas turn to desperate measures: killing, inbreeding and dying attempting to cross busy roadways. 

“I’m perfectly willing to say that, really, connectivity is the No. 1 biggest issue for local animals in general, but for sure for mountain lions,” Riley, who has been a wildlife ecologist for the NPS in the Santa Monica Mountains since 2000, said. 

Riley and Sikich said the goal of the study was not just gathering knowledge — advocating for local animals is part of the mission.

“It’s our duty to preserve everything in our national park here in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area,” Sikich said, later adding, “Really, environmental health can be determined by the success of these mountain lions. If we have a healthy mountain lion population in our mountains, that also equals healthy ecosystems. Because by protecting enough habitat for lions to do well, we’re also protecting habitat for every other species to do well.”

Asked what would happen to the ecosystem in the mountains if the population fails, Riley replied that effects may be far reaching and difficult to predict.

“We don’t necessarily know all the things that would happen if we lost mountain lions, but I think what I have to say is, it’s not an experiment that we want to conduct,” Riley said.

But the experiment appears already underway.

According to a 2016 postdoctoral study published in the journal “Proceedings of the Royal Society B,” evidence suggests Santa Monica Mountains pumas were up to 99.7% likely to go extinct within about 50 years due to inbreeding. (Both Riley and Sikich were named as authors of the study, together with John F. Benson, Peter J. Mahoney, Laurel E. K. Serieys, John P. Pollinger and Holly B. Ernest.)

In March 2020, NPS spotted the first puma with visible birth defects related to inbreeding. Shortly after, two more with the same defect — a kinked, “L-shaped” tail — were spotted. 

But despite all of these challenges, the scientists are optimistic about the future, thanks to another recent development: the April 2022 groundbreaking of a new freeway overpass at Liberty Canyon. That crossing will connect the Santa Monica Mountains to the Simi Hills over the 101, making it easier for cougars and other species to cross over, not only into Simi but up into the Santa Susana Mountains (through a relatively easier, but still dangerous, crossing at State Route 118) and even up to the expanse of the Los Padres National Forest. 

“The ultimate goal is to, ideally, maintain connectivity between these coastal areas, which the Santa Monicas are a part of,” Riley said. “And the Sierras, because, really, the best genetic diversity is in the Sierras. That would be ideal, to make that connection as well.”

That journey begins with the Liberty Canyon overpass — now called the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing — first proposed in 2015. After years of study and millions of dollars raised, the new bridge broke ground on Earth Day this year, with a set opening goal of 2024. The current price tag for the crossing is estimated at $90 million, from a combination of private and public funds.

Sikich said the NPS was confident animals would use the overpass once it opens.

“They’re already there, on both sides of the freeway,” Sikich said, adding that radio collars and remote wildlife cameras have tracked bobcats, deer, coyotes and mountain lions exploring the area right up to the freeway.

“P-89, in particular, was at the Liberty Canyon area on a couple of occasions. I think, if the crossing was there at that time, he would have likely used it to go across,” Sikich added. “After exploring all those areas, for whatever reason, he attempted to cross when he did and was struck.”

As the crossing is constructed and local mountain lions and other animal species begin to interact with it, Riley said the mountain lion study would continue to track their behavior, with no plans to end any time soon.

Riley said funding for the ongoing research began with a California State Parks grant in 2002, and over the years NPS funds allocated by Congress have gone toward the study, as well as Caltrans grants, income from the Calabasas landfill, significant gifts from the nonprofit Santa Monica Mountains Fund and a large donation from the DiCaprio Foundation. 

“We definitely want to keep studying them [mountain lions] to see that they’re going to make it over the longer term and, in particular, to look at: What responses to the crossing do we get?” Riley said. “We are quite confident that animals were going to use it going back and forth, but we want enough animals to use it and to breed. If animals just come across, that doesn’t do anything if they don’t reproduce. But if they come across and reproduce and increase the genetic diversity and then younger animals are able to spread out across up north? All of that’s really good.”

emily@smdp.com