National Park Service wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich, right, and his team… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
Jeff Sikich shinnied up a charred oak in the Allegheny Mountains of western Virginia, shined his flashlight down into the hollowed-out trunk and gazed into the wary eyes of a mother bear 10 feet below.
As he fired a sedative dart into the black bear's shoulder, another biologist on the ground hollered for Sikich to block the opening to keep the bear from climbing up and out. Sikich leaned his long torso into the trunk's interior as the bear raced up, stopping about a foot from his nose.
"She stayed there looking at me, huffing and puffing her jaws and slapping the tree with her massive paws," he recalled.
PHOTOS: Tracking mountain lions
The drug soon took effect and the bear retreated into her arboreal den, Sikich said, "but the guys on the ground had a good laugh when they saw my legs shaking while the rest of my body was stuffed in the hole."
For a wildlife biologist who relishes close encounters with feral meat eaters, such adrenaline-pumping moments are all in a day's — or night's — work. In pursuit of lions (mountain), tigers (Sumatran) and bears (black), Sikich has hacked his way through jungle and snowshoed over forested backcountry.
He has concocted lures from beaver parts, skunk essence and catnip oil. He has used blowpipes to dart furry limbs and lowered drowsing animals from trees.
Sikich's instincts in the wild and his humane captures have earned him a place among a cadre of go-to carnivore trackers.
Agencies and nonprofit groups across the nation and around the world have enlisted him to capture and collar animals, many of them threatened, so that their eating and mating habits, movements and life spans could be studied.
Sikich has safely caught hundreds of carnivores large and small, most recently leopards in South Africa for the Cape Leopard Trust and mountain lions and jaguars in Peru for the World Wildlife Fund. He has weighed them, measured their teeth, taken blood samples and attached radio tracking collars.
But his main work for the last decade has been somewhere less exotic: right here in Southern California, where as a wildlife biologist for the National Park Service he has trailed cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
The study looks at the effects on these predators of dense population and habitat-splintering freeways, residential areas and commercial centers. The researchers' findings have bolstered arguments for a wildlife corridor across the 101 Freeway to afford cougars safe passage between the Santa Monicas and ranges to the north, with the aim of expanding territories and mating options.
As part of the study, Sikich has twice captured and collared P-22, the male puma that in February became the first mountain lion to be photographed in Griffith Park.
The recapture — to replace a nonfunctioning GPS device — followed months during which Sikich drove his government pickup in and around the park, using an antenna to pick up very high frequency signals still beaming from the cougar's collar. Just after sunrise one August morning, Sikich and a colleague hiked in and spotted the cat, relaxing in a boulder-strewn ravine.
Sikich, 6 feet 2 and 180 pounds, clambered onto an overhanging limb to survey his quarry, about 10 feet away. The cat didn't move. "He knew I was there," Sikich said.
Last May in the Santa Monicas, Quinton Martins, chief executive of the Cape Leopard Trust in Cape Town, South Africa, shadowed Sikich and admired his technique with foot-hold snares. Martins thought the devices would be less harmful to leopards, which injure themselves trying to bite or scratch their way out of box or cage traps. He invited Sikich to the Boland Mountains to teach the method.
For his first capture in South Africa, Sikich buried a spring-loaded snare made of cables on a rocky ridge where remote cameras had captured images of leopards. He camouflaged the trap with sticks and stones. A leopard (BM4), about 8 years old, soon walked by, causing the spring to throw the loop around a front paw.
Within two weeks, "we had captured and collared three male leopards," Martins said. "Awesome!"
Sikich, 37, grew up in the southern suburbs of Chicago and northwest Indiana. He is the eldest of three children from a thoroughly citified family. His mother worked as a home interior decorator for a furniture manufacturer. His father was a manager at a vending company.
Sikich found his way into the woods when a grandfather, Gene Dickson, took him fishing.
"We call him mountain man," said younger sister Sara Sikich, a Chicago resident who has never been camping.
Sikich describes himself this way: "I am much more comfortable navigating if you drop me off in the middle of the woods than in the middle of the city."