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Mountain lion was a poaching victim, fish and game wardens say

Investigators are hoping they'll get a tip in the case of P-15, found dead in the western Santa Monica Mountains in September.

October 05, 2011|By Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times
  • Mountain lion P-15, shown in a photo taken by remote camera, had been tracked for nearly two years by National Park Service scientists.
Mountain lion P-15, shown in a photo taken by remote camera, had been tracked… (National Park Service )

A mountain lion found dead in the western Santa Monica Mountains was killed and mutilated by poachers, according to state fish and game wardens who are seeking tips in the case.

"We're going to have to get lucky on this. There's virtually no forensic evidence," said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game. Investigators, he added, are hoping a member of the public will hear "somebody bragging about how they killed a mountain lion, and they'll call us" at (800) 334-2258, the agency's hot line.

The 7-year-old male, known as P-15, was discovered dead last month. He had been tracked for nearly two years by National Park Service scientists who had trapped him in Point Mugu State Park after spotting signs of territorial marking. They outfitted him with a GPS collar and released him as part of an ongoing study of mountain lion movement in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

One of six or seven mountain lions believed to live in the Santa Monicas, he roamed the entire range.

In late August, P-15's collar stopped transmitting signals. Biologists searched the area of his last known location but did not find him. On Sept. 11, they received a call from someone who had found a mountain lion carcass in a canyon between Cal State Channel Islands and Newbury Park in Ventura County.

The tracking collar had been removed and the animal had been mutilated. To determine its identity, researchers sent tissue samples to the UCLA Conservation Genetics Resource Center, which compared it to samples previously taken from mountain lions in the study. The tests showed that the animal was P-15.

Also known as cougars or pumas, mountain lions are protected under state law. It is illegal to hunt or trap them for sport. Of the 21 tracked since the Santa Monica Mountains study was launched nearly a decade ago, most have died. But park service wildlife ecologist Seth Riley said P-15 was the first poaching victim.

Another male died in late August while attempting to cross the 405 Freeway near the Getty Center during morning rush hour. Two pumas have died after eating poisoned rodents.

Riley said the most common cause of death "is males killing other males" — possibly because they don't have enough room to stake out new territory of their own. "Normally, young males disperse out to new areas, and that is especially challenging in the Santa Monica Mountains," which are hemmed in by development and freeways.

P-15's killing "is a significant blow to the mountain lion research study," Riley said.

Wildlife researchers are still tracking a sister of the animal killed on the 405, as well as two males that were in the nearby Santa Susana Mountains. One of the Santa Susana cats recently crossed Highway 126 and headed north into the Los Padres National Forest. Other mountain lions have been photographed in the Santa Monicas with remotely operated cameras set up by the park service.

Riley said Caltrans and his agency have applied for a $10-million grant to construct a freeway underpass beneath the 101 in Liberty Canyon to provide safe passage for the mountain lions. "In the long run we have to have animals move back and forth" between the Santa Monicas and other public lands, he said.

The fish and game department estimates there are between 4,000 and 6,000 pumas in California. Statewide, Hughan said, mountain lion killings are not uncommon. A San Diego County man was recently fined and put on probation for poaching one.

bettina.boxall@latimes.com

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