In his disheveled National Park Service uniform, minus the funny hat, Seth Riley stands in the parking lot of a Starbucks coffeehouse. He is waving a large radio antenna at the nearby hills, listening intently on his headphones. This being Malibu, no one pays Riley any heed.
A wildlife ecologist, he wouldn't notice anyway. He's concentrating on a series of beeps emanating from the Santa Monica Mountains. The beeps are coming from a mountain lion wearing a radio collar.
The 150-pound, 6-to 8-year-old lion is part of the first study of the big cats in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Until a few months ago, Riley and his colleagues say, no one had been sure the animal even existed.
Riley is at Pacific Coast Highway and Trancas Canyon Road, a stone's throw from Zuma Beach and just miles from the nation's second-largest metropolis.
"Some people know what the antenna is for, because they've been watching the Discovery Channel and they'll make the connection we're tracking some critters," says Eric York, Riley's research partner. "If people are interested, we'll tell them the whole story."
For years, officials with the park service and California State Parks had been hearing about mountain lions in the western Santa Monicas but had never seen one.
It seemed unlikely that lions still lived there. The animals need a lot of space, and the range is not only well-stocked with homes, cars and people but also surrounded by freeways, suburbs and ocean. Occasionally a hiker or resident claimed to have seen a cougar, but no one ever managed to get a photo.
That changed last spring, when remote cameras triggered by motion-control sensors took two pictures of a male lion. Riley and York began laying traps and, in mid-July, the lion stepped into a leg snare near Mulholland Highway.
After being tranquilized and fitted with the collar, the animal was released. The collar is linked to a global positioning system, or GPS, that records where the lion has been every day. All Riley and York have to do is get their antenna close enough to the lion to download the data occasionally.
The researchers, naturally, are thrilled to get a glimpse of how a large predator carves out a living in the range. But a little knowledge, they concede, can be a dangerous thing.
The park service's main fear is liability. "What happens," York asked, "if a lion wearing our radio collar decides to eat someone's $200,000 horse?"
It was a difficult question for the park service. Officials wanted to know what animals live in the national recreation area so the agency could protect them, which is its mission. They wondered aloud what to do if a collared lion bunked down near a school or in someone's backyard.
"We don't see a lion with a radio collar any differently than any other lion," said Ray Sauvajot, the research chief of the recreation area. "What would determine any actions is the behavior of the lion and not where it is."
Park officials, in fact, are more worried about how to protect cats from people than vice versa, especially because there have been no attacks on humans in the area in recent memory.
The GPS data, thus far, show the lion's range to be impressive--covering about 125 square miles, from Malibu Canyon to Point Mugu. He is crossing roads, approaching people's backyards and doing the things a mountain lion does. Last week, for example, Eric York found a deer the cat had killed in a canyon near Kanan Road. The western Santa Monicas are, in effect, an island--not a very big one--formed by Sunset Boulevard and the Pacific to the south, the San Diego Freeway to the east, the Ventura Freeway to the north and the Oxnard Plain to the west. There probably aren't many lions there, and their number is unlikely to grow much.
"At the most, there's room for another male and two to three females per each male's range," Riley said. "So, at the most, there's maybe eight lions, and that's not enough to maintain a population."
To survive over the long term, mountain lions need to be connected to larger chunks of habitat. In this case, that means the Santa Susana Mountains and Los Padres National Forest. But there are only two undeveloped corridors linking the Santa Monicas to those areas.
The wider of the two corridors is through the Simi Hills, on the other side of the Ventura Freeway. The freeway is an imposing obstacle, and park officials doubt that lions can get under or over it. Researchers say the proposed 3,050-home Ahmanson Ranch development, which would be built where the Simi Hills funnel into the Santa Monicas, could extinguish any chance of the lions' using that corridor.
Ahmanson "is outside the national park boundaries, but it's in a critical position to affect the health of wildlife resources in the Santa Monica Mountains," said the park superintendent, Woody Smeck. "I appreciate the social discussion going on, in terms of the housing crunch, but I hope that will be balanced with considerations about wildlife."
Riley and York try to remain hopeful that lions are getting across the freeway. The two are up nearly every morning well before dawn, to check traps and then to track the male they've collared. If there's a male in the Santa Monicas, they say, there must be a female.
Life Without Lions
Polishing off his iced coffee--studying urban wildlife has its advantages--Riley is asked the question that all ecologists hate to answer: Why protect the lions?
"Will the mountains' ecology fall apart around here with no mountain lions?" he asks. "The answer is no. But I think we're all the poorer for it if there aren't mountain lions in the mountains."
In other words, the lions have made it this far. Somehow, this creature survived the roads, subdivisions, even the coming of Starbucks.
With that, Riley and York load up their trucks and head north on Pacific Coast Highway, chasing a lion once believed to be a ghost.