Death of Santa Monica Mountains Cougar Sparks Investigation into Cause and Mutilation of Cat's Remains
• Animal's Demise Increases Need for Ways that Mountain Lions Can Travel to Other Habitat Areas
BY ANNE SOBLE
One of the collared male mountain lions that roamed the expanse of the Santa Monica Mountains was found dead three weeks ago near what was likely his westernmost territory—close to Point Mugu State Park—where the National Park Service originally captured him for monitoring.
NPS officials say the mountain lion did not die of natural causes and a human- or humans had mutilated the animal's remains.
The cougar, known as P-15 for Puma-15, was being monitored as part of an NPS study project on the big cats.
Its remains were discovered Sept. 11. P-15's GPS radio locator collar had stopped transmitting three weeks before that, and NPS and the state Department of Fish and Game were alerted on the assumption that the animal, the sole remaining male to have a working collar, had died.
DFG has launched an investigation into the cause of death, but will not release additional details while the investigation is in progress. Nonetheless, conjecture runs the gamut from someone illegally poaching the mountain lion in the wild for trophy purposes, to illegally trapping the 130-pound cat and killing it, to the less likely possibility that the animal was found injured or dead and then mutilated for keepsakes.
An NPS announcement indicated that genetic testing by the UCLA Conservation Genetics Research Center conclusively determined that the dead mountain lion was the seven-year-old P-15, which was genetically related to other mountain lions in the Santa Monicas.
P-15's death, following on the heels of the death of another cougar, P-18—on the 405 freeway at about the same time P-15 may have been killed—has had a major adverse effect on NPS research efforts.
Accompanying the announcement of the cougar's death was a statement by NPS wildlife ecologist Seth Riley, "There are not a lot of mountain lions left in the Santa Monica Mountains, and each one plays an important role in the overall local survival of the mountain lion population."
The National Park Service believes there are at least seven other mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains, including P-12, P-13, and P-19. Residents on ranches and larger rural parcels in western Malibu occasionally report seeing uncollared animals, which might mean local numbers could actually be higher but this raises separate territorial issues.
In addition to the territory and dietary requirements, critical to a healthy gene pool is the means for animals to move from the Santa Monicas to other mountain ranges and forest areas.
NPS PIO Lauren Newman said that in June the NPS, the state Department of Transportation and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy submitted an application for a state grant, and the agencies are awaiting word that a through route in the Liberty Canyon area might be funded and implemented.
In addition to clues that can be obtained where the animal died, investigators hope that whoever is responsible for what happened to P-15 will tell someone how the cougar died, or show them what he took from the animal, including its collar.
Persons with information that may be related in any way to the animal's demise are urged to contact the California Department of Fish and Game. The DFG Cal Tip Hotline is 1-800-334-2258.
Although mountain lions are protected, they are not endangered, and the punishment for killing one is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. There is no additional penalty for killing a cat collared for research.
In the case of the Santa Monicas, the punishment does not take into account the impact of P-15's loss on the local cat population. Unless and until there are ways for the state's biggest cat to travel to other habitat areas, each loss is immeasurable.