Suburban Stalkers: The Near-Wild Lions in Our Midst

Difficult decisions await in trying to preserve mountain lion species in suburban areas while also maintaining their wildness.

Robert Louis Chianese

On a rainy Nonmember night in the hills of Malibu, California, a mountain lion moves silently into a pen of alpacas. It snags a long throat in its jaws, teeth bloody, the animal barely squealing, no flight, fully down. There are more alpacas, many more, and the mountain lion’s overcharged in­stincts hold him to readiness again. Move­ment triggers attack, jumping, tearing, until nothing moves—a field of bloody prey he cannot eat or drag away.

The recent killing of 10 alpacas by the mountain lion known as P-45 in the Santa Monica mountains near Los Angeles made national headlines and prompted outpourings of support for the big cat. The alpaca owner received a permit to exterminate the beast, but she too felt sympathy for this mag­nificent creature. She let it live. Many cheered her decision, though others faulted her for grazing her nonnative flock in mountain lion habitat.

Many of us desire to conserve the wild, in part so that we and the gen­erations after us can experience it. But the case of the mountain lion in South­ern California shows just how uneasy neighbors we and wild animals often become. Many Californians want to protect this carnivore, even at the risk of losing livestock and, although much less likely, human life. Without our intervention, the mountain lion cannot thrive among us. But it’s unclear whether we can live alongside it and still protect the species—and its wildness.

Living with Lions

In Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, a series of mountain ranges extend in parallel from the Hollywood Hills west to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, with dense suburban populations on ei­ther side of and between them. These ranges—the Santa Susana Mountains, the Simi Hills and the Santa Monica Mountains—connect to a longer range stretching 300 miles northeast along the major San Andreas fault, with the vaster Los Padres and Angeles National For­ests lying to the north. Both east-west and north-south freeways and urban de­velopment cut these “inner” mountains off from the rest of the “outer” range. Mountain lions (Puma concolor)—also known as cougars, pumas, panthers, and catamounts—live, breed, and roam in this extensive inner area, which has its own system of freeways and subur­ban sprawl. The National Park Service uses GPS collars to track as many as 20 mountain lions at any one time just within these densely populated areas.

Californians voted to protect their big cats in 1990 with the California Wild­life Protection Act, a ballot initiative that made California the only western state to outlaw trophy hunting of mountain lions, with a few other states trying to enact such a ban. The act does, how­ever, permit government agencies to kill mountain lions deemed a threat to pub­lic health, and for individuals to request depredation permits to kill mountain lions that attack their livestock.

Today, the mountain lion popula­tion in California is stable, with an esti­mated 4,000 to 6,000 in the state. So far, living with lions has come with mini­mal risk to human life. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, mountain lions have killed six people in the state since 1890. Despite the low risk, the core of public support for Puma-45 and other mountain lions seems based in part on our need to feel enlivened by their presence, their vital­ity and danger, as if we ourselves gain a certain charge and revived natural spirit for having them close by, saunter­ing through urban outskirts, restoring a lost wildness to our own lives.

Poet Brendan Galvin, in “Cougar,” captures our thrill in finding a lion in our midst, because it helps us push back the stale conformity, inauthentic­ity, and enervating over-convenience of modern life:

Stalking near the ranchettes, McMansions, and swerving housing tracts of the Santa Monica Mountains, PH5 reminds us of the savagery and wilderness we have tamed and nearly destroyed. We feel cougars have to stay. The risk they present to pets, livestock, hikers, and joggers we think are worth it. However, it’s not an easy accommodation.

Fragmentation

We create landscapes increasingly at odds with mountain lion biology. Al­though mountain lion populations are doing well overall in California, the National Park Service reports that the long-term survival of mountain lions in and around the Santa Monica Mountains region in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties is threatened by an increasingly fragmented habitat.

Lions, particularly males, roam in search of mates, which increases health­ful genetic diversity. A male cougar’s typical home range is about 200 square miles, a female’s around 75 square miles. They often move along natural wild­life corridors—long-established animal trails along ravines, passes, and seasonal streambeds. In Southern California, their intense need to roam frequently meets impassable asphalt. In 2015 vehicles killed nine mountain lions in this re­gion. Last December, a female, P-39, was killed on the eight-lane Highway 118 on the edge of the suburban Simi Valley, a major choke point on what seems a well-traveled natural corridor. She left three kittens behind in rock piles high above the houses. Within a couple of months, two of the kittens met the same fate.

Mountain lions that forego danger­ous highway crossings instead face health risks associated with inbreeding. The coastal edging Santa Monicas in particular feature fractured habitats re­sulting in genetic “bottlenecks.” Accord­ing to the National Park Service, moun­tain lions in this region have among the lowest genetic diversity of any moun­tain lion population ever recorded.

Mountain lions also have a strong instinct to hunt, which places both domesticated animals and the moun­tain lions themselves at risk. P-22, the mountain lion known as the “Griffith Park lion,” is believed to have entered the Los Angeles Zoo, jumped an 8-foot wall, and captured and fled with a koa­la. Los Angeles mourned the koala and also accepted that this might happen in a zoo located within a large urban semi­natural park. The loss of a single zoo specimen can be lamented, but owners of livestock often feel their livelihoods are threatened by cougar attack. Ac­cording to the Mountain Lion Foun­dation, 250 cougars face depredation permits each year in California.

As urban development further im­pinges on the mountain lion’s historic travel routes, the compulsively roam­ing animals inevitably will be forced to creep through expanding human habi­tat, with further sad outcomes likely.

A female mountain lion “cheek-rubs,” leaving her scent on a log, in mountains overlooking downtown Los Angeles, California. According to the National Park Service, Los Angeles and Mumbai are the only megacities that have big cats living within the city limits. (Unless other­wise noted, all images are courtesy of the National Park Service.)

Wildness Lost

To buffer against these threats, the mountain lions close to human devel­opment are highly managed by the Cal­ifornia Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service. Many of the lions in southern California are captured, tested for disease, genetically typed, then collared with a radio trans­mitter for regular GPS monitoring of their travel and energy use over their lifetimes. They are numbered if not named, photographed even at night, sometimes re-captured and treated for disease, and finally channeled not just by their own scent trails and ancient paths, but by human-altered geologi­cal features and the irregular lines and discontinuous edges of our fragmented human developments. By carefully managing lions, we in effect strip them of their original wildness.

Conservationist Stephen M. Meyer defines the wild as places without hu­man disturbance, and claims, resign­edly, that there are no such places left. His 2006 book The End of the Wild forces us to face our total reshaping of the planet for our purposes. Meyer’s formula for stemming the depletion of species is as simple as it is difficult to accomplish—reduce our material con­sumption, shrink our ecological foot­
print, and stop pollution. But he takes his thesis about the control we have over nature to an end point we may not like—he says we need more con­trol over nature, more management and interventions, not false hopes that things can survive if left to themselves as “wild.” Environmentalist Bill McK- ibben makes a similar claim in his 1989 book The End of Nature. McKibben chronicles how pollution of the atmo­sphere and subsequent global climate change alter some prime values and beliefs. In subduing nature, we lose our sense of a spirit in nature, and now experience an underlying sadness and loneliness when contemplating it.

The home ranges of many mountain lions in the Los Angeles area extend right to the edge of urban development. The mountain lion known as P-22 likely crossed two major Los Angeles freeways, the 405 and 101, to make it to Griffith Park on the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains, where it entered a zoo and captured a koala.

This scenario brings us back to P-45 and his forays into domesticated nature on the edge of what I call the “near wild”—the mainly undisturbed outer areas of Ventura and Los Ange­les Counties. P-45 killed ten alpacas, eating only one. How wild is that? Ac­cording to a statement issued by the Mountain Lion Loundation after the al­paca attack, “P-45 finds himself victim to an evolutionary mismatch between the environment in which he evolved and the place where he is attempting to survive today.” Presenting P-45 with a pen of alpacas prompted an “unnat­ural” animal attack. The alpacas had nowhere to run. PH5 responded to an over-stimulated instinct that triggered relentless behavior. He became, at least temporarily, a manic slaughterer rather than a stealthy, savvy hunter.

Everything about cougars plying outlying areas into suburban neighbor­hoods is a semi-this or semi-that—semi­wild, semi-tamed, semi-developed, semi-acceptable. The whole issue lives in a liminal zone. Artist Luke Matjas turns this space between the wild and managed into a locus of fantasy in a project entitled “The Natural History Museum meets Home Depot.” His 2016 hyper-real painting, Study of Landscape

By carefully managing lions, we in effect strip them of their original wildness.

Connectivity in Urban Island Environ­ments, offers a tribute to cougar P-18, who was killed crossing the 405 free­way. It depicts an overburdened cougar supporting a camper, plastic containers and chairs, an ecological life-cycle dia­gram, and a semi-living tree of life. P-18 seems stoic, accepting his burdens as he steps into a poppy-edged pathway. Had such a pathway been an open wildlife corridor, he may have survived.

Matjas’ title implies his wish that we could create corridors that connect the “islands” of wilderness. I see, however, a resigned cougar supporting both our gear-crav­ing and our contrary attrac­tions to wildness. P-18 upholds our plastic stuff as icons of sub­urban life. The cougar’s tamed proximity seems to promote the endless accoutrements of modern camping in the “wild,” here both a des­ert on the camper’s roof and a burnt hill­side where P-18 seems to pause. The red gas can is more ominous—the source of both pollution and wildfires. P-18 seems to carry the means of his own destruc­tion, or is himself reduced to another outdoor consumer product for us to own, control, and safely enjoy. He is then an “other,” like nature, out there and separate from human life.

What Might We Do?

Many conservationists push to connect isolated cougar populations by unblock­ing natural wildlife corridors or creating new ones. Increasing connectivity could mean protecting large swaths of land be­tween cougar populations, or building overpasses or underpasses to encour­age safe highway crossings. Lor exam­ple, the National Wildlife Pederation’s #SaveLACougars campaign is raising funds for a major corridor over the east- west 101 freeway that would connect the Santa Monica Mountains with the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains.

But some ecologists believe that con­structing corridors gives us a false sense of conservation. Ecologist Daniel Sim- berloff of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville told writer Jim Robins for Yale Environment 360 that “A general concern I’ve had with the corridor bandwagon is that it perpetuates the notion that we can somehow have conservation on the cheap by providing a technological solu­tion to the problem of habitat destruc­tion and fragmentation…It’s seductive, but unlikely to work in many cases. Un­fortunately to conserve biodiversity we have to conserve habitat.”

There is also a simple and con­founding issue I have never heard addressed—increasing connectiv­ity between mountain lion populations creates two-way access. Corridors are not just escape routes into less popu­lated or open areas. Connectivity may also, I fear, allow lions from the hinter­land to more easily walk into subur­ban hillsides, causing more human and livestock encounters. I wonder wheth­er, over time, this more regular con-

Many Californians feel that mountain lions should be protected, de­spite the risk to livestock. Last November, this mountain lion, known as P-45, killed 10 alpacas in a pen. After applying for a depredation permit, the alpaca’s owner ultimately decided to let P-45 live.

 

The National Park Service tracks mountain lions in Southern Califor­nia with GPS collars. Here, the lion known as P-39 takes a break from a meal in the spring of 2015. She and two of her cubs were later killed trying to cross the 118 freeway.

There is also a simple and confounding issue I have never heard
addressed—increasing connectivity between mountain lion populations
creates two-way access. Corridors are not just escape routes into less populated
or open areas. Connectivity may also, I fear, allow lions from the hinterland
to more easily walk into suburban hillsides, causing more human and
livestock encounters. I wonder whether, over time, this more regular contact may further strip mountain lions of their remaining wildness. Wildlife ecologist Anthony Giordano, founder of The Society for the Protection of Endangered
Carnivores and their International Ecological Study (SPECIES),
claims that mountain lions now eat more raccoons than deer, by necessity.
Will they one day stalk raccoons into suburban haunts, ambushing them at
garbage containers? Will they yield to the temptations of coyote-like adaptive
coexistence with us? Will this induce a lamentable semi-domestication into
their magnificence?

Will they one day stalk raccoons into suburban haunts, ambushing them at garbage containers? Will they yield to the temptations of coyote-like adaptive coexistence with us? Will this induce a lamentable semi-domestication into their magnificence?

We have three options. First, we can persist in a shaky coexistence, and expand cougar ranges and access, hoping new corridors might keep them—and us—safe. That seems our current direction.

Second, we can accept that instead of truly “wild” lands, we have some­thing more like the “near wild” of the distant mountains, the “managed wild” of the inner mountains, and the “con­tained wild” of Griffith Park and the Los Angeles Zoo itself. In our attempts to save the mountain lion, we could fol­low Meyer’s seemingly paradoxical in­junction to go ahead and manage the environment even more in order to pre­serve it. We could consider the rural sur­rounds of Los Angeles as an extended semi-zoo, where animals are managed and fenced in or out to meet our need to share the environment with them. We could introduce more native deer and other natural prey. We could provide water sources such as pipe-fed houghs to encourage them to stay within their managed ranges.

Or, we could attempt, whenever pos­sible, to keep our distance from them. We could stop developing housing and commercial projects that jut into open space, which would reduce the need for “managed” corridors between shrinking habitat “islands.” In Ventura County, where I live, we have partly done that.

Click image to enlarge

The California-based artist Luke Matjas created this work entitled “Study of Land­scape Connectivity in Urban Island Environ­ments (P-18)” as part of a larger collection called “The Natural Sciences Illustrated.” The mountain lion known as P-18 died attempting to cross the 405 Freeway. Creating highway overpasses or underpasses to act as wildlife corridors may protect mountain lions from ve­hicle collisions. But the author sees managed wildlife corridors as an imperfect solution.

Integrated land use ballot measures by wide margins that would save open space and agricultural resources (SOAR) on the edge of suburbia for 30 more years. These multiple initiatives, first adopted in 1995 and 1998, do not permanently lock up our large, mainly undeveloped county, but require a vote of the people to approve any develop­ment in the “protected” areas. The first SOAR initiatives generally succeeded for 20 years in restraining development beyond the existing boundaries of our cities. These land use measures have not prevented near-wild creatures such as P-39 from escaping death from cross­ing freeways, but can minimize the loss of nearly wild habitat over the coming years for them to roam in. However, new grumblings about SOAR from within our County Supervisor Board suggest we will have to continue the fight both to keep and expand our pre­served open space.

I believe that mountain lions would do better if we kept our mutual dis­tances. But keeping the near-wild lions already in our midst out of backyards and motorways remains an unresolved dilemma. We want mountain lions here and can protect them somewhat, but ul­timately our coexistence might serve lit­tle more than to threaten or tame them.

References

Galvin, B. 1986. “Cougar” from Seals in the In­ner Harbor. Reprinted in Urban Nature: Poems about Wildlife in the City, 2000, ed. Laure-Anne Bosselaar. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.

Meyer, S. M. 2006. The End of the Wild. Cam­bridge: MIT Press.

McKibben, B. 1989. The End of Nature. New York: Random House.

Robbins, J. 2011. Can wildlife corridors heal fragmented landscapes? Yale Environment 360. http://e360. yale.edu/features/ecologi- cal_corridors_connecting_fragmented_pock- ets_of_wildlife_habitat

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