The Lion's Eye
The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a mountain lion habitat. Each lion requires about 100 square miles of living space to provide enough food and roaming room to stay alive. If a lion kills off a deer, then the deer population has to be large enough provide another one a week later, or the lion’s staple food supply will run out. There are about seven lions living in our mountains, give or take one or two. They are extremely competitive and will kill off each other over food and territory. P-1 killed his own mate as well as P-7, his daughter. Males are not into family life and females have a time limit after which they drive off their young, like P-18. Lions need large, open spaces to exist.
The lions are Nature’s indicator of the health of the ecology of the SMMNRA. As top predators, they limit the mule deer population, while the mule deer provide the lions staple food. As long as both play their role, the system works. In places like Michigan and Pennsylvania, the deer populations there are so out of hand that every driver has to pay hundreds of dollars each year for supplemental deer insurance. The predator/prey relationship has become untenable. Thousands and thousands of licensed deer hunters each year cannot keep up with this warping of nature’s balance.
The SMMNRA is like an island for the lions, with Mother Pacific on one side, the 405 and the 101 freeways on two others and the heavily farmed Oxnard plains on the last. The NPS calls this isolation a ‘fragmentation of habitat’. Only one lion (P-12) has ever come to the island from somewhere else, when he crossed the 101 at Liberty Canyon. Lions wander along game trails at the edge of the freeways, hoping to find a way across. They turn around and go back when they cannot. 8 high speed lanes and 50 foot vertical walls on the 405 are hard to navigate. P-18 tried it at the Getty Center and was taken out by an early morning commuter. While migrating birds can move from summer to winter habitats by air, lion’s movements are limited by the confusion of the city and the vertical barriers and threats provided by mankind.
The lions in the Santa Monicas are all related to one another. Incest is the norm, with fathers (P-12 and P-1) mating with daughters (P-19 and P-11). As a result of inbreeding, the potential for mutations is high. A mutated lion, like a two-headed snake, could not compete, and would most probably die off as soon as it started to move away from its mother. Relatively small infirmities such as those caused by rat poison early in life, have resulted in death for lion cubs, such as P-17.
There is a need, a critical need, then, for new genetic material to be introduced from non-related lions traveling via wildlife corridors. Because P-12 was unrelated to the lions of the Santa Monica Mountains, his mating with P-13, a resident, after arriving in the SMMNRA, provided hope for the future of the population. His mating with his daughter (P-19) was disappointing. Unlike the Ranger /Scientists observing, P-12 does not seem to care much about genetic potential or the future of his kind.
Many people believe that capturing and removing the lions would cure this problem, as well as others. The problem with relocation is that any place you put them is already the habitat of a group of resident lions. If it’s a good place for lions, then there will be lions there. Think of an inner city gang expanding into another gang’s territory. The newly introduced lions don’t know the territory. The resident lions know it well and are patrolling it every day. Somebody is going to lose. Also, if the SMMNRA was empty, new lions would most probably re-populate it someday. P-22 did make it to Griffith Park.
There are other lion habitats in Southern California, not too far away. The Simi Hills is such a habitat, as is the San Gabriel Mountain Range and the Los Padres National Forest. Here in Southern California, land where people can live is at a premium and corridors connecting lion habitats are no exceptions. Pressure from highly profitable real estate interests to build is high. The choice between a lion and someone with a few million dollars in their hand is made easily by someone standing to profit from a 10 percent commission.
It is only through the dedicated activism of conservation organizations that wildlife corridors like the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Corridor near Cheeseboro National Park, can continue to provide a pathway to the survival of our Mountain Lion population. Support for organizations such as Save Open Space, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, The Mountain Lion Foundation, the Nature Conservancy and the Mountains Restoration Trust, is always appreciated. Without the efforts of these organizations, the Santa Monica Mountains would be a completely different place.