I was recently reading an article about a cougar that had to be killed after it was mortally wounded by a car on the U.S. Highway 101. It was a small car- a Dodge neon, but it packed a mean punch. The story reminded me of the first time I went to investigate a lion hit by a car while I was working at the Grand Canyon. And the second time. And the third....
I got a call from my partner Eric very early on the 4th of July. He was on the road around 4 a.m. heading to the North Rim to try to track P5, (nomenclature: P is for Puma, and 5 for the fifth one collared) a 5 year-old female we had captured in April who headed straight down into the canyon, swam across the Colorado River near Hermit's Rapids, and scrambled up to the North Rim, all in under 24 hours. An incredible feat by any standards. And now her collar was emitting a mortality signal. But that's not what this story is about.
Driving along the edge of the South Rim, Eric set the VHF receiver to scan all our channels so it would pick up telemetry signals from any of the other collared lions within range. He came across P8's signal coming in really strong right along the road. Also emitting a mortality signal. He suddenly spotted P8's collar on the side of the road, bloody and broken.....but P8 was not in sight.
P8 was a young adult male we had captured and collared just the week before. We caught him in a snare on narrow stretch of land that spans between the rim and the road, not far from where a large adult male lion was hit by a tour bus in the fall of 2003.
Photo caption: P8 and Eric at a capture site in late June, 2005
When I got off the phone with Eric, I did some investigating. I called Park Dispatch to see if anyone had reported hitting a lion, seeing a lion, or anything at all about a lion over the night. They searched through their records- that surprised me because usually if anyone said anything about a lion, everybody knew about it, so there shouldn't really be any need to search through records. There wasn't anything in their records. I was duped. How could someone hit a mountain lion with their car and not even report it, I wondered.
I went to the site where P8's collar had been found. It was a place where the road both dipped down and curved sharply to the north. A driver coming from the east wouldn't be able to see anything on the road until it was like, 10 or 15 feet in front of him. Skid marks were visible for about 70 feet.....mixed with spots of blood and fur.... P8 must have been drug underneath the carriage. What condition was he in now? I searched the area above the rim and between the road, but couldn't find any sign of him.
It wasn't until that afternoon that the Condors appeared, circling above a slope just below the canyon rim. Eric and I hiked in. We dropped down into the canyon off-trail, heading toward the commotion the giant birds were making. They'd found P8, who had apparently succumbed to his wounds after crawling below the rim. We came upon his broken body. He had a small but very deep gash on the left side of his body.
We left the carcass where we found it, knowing that the endangered California Condors and other scavengers would have a feast. We set up a remote still camera and a remote video camera to record the action. We were able get to get the only footage ever taken of California Condors feeding on a mountain lion carcass, at least that I know of. It's disgusting.Photo caption: Condors feeding on P8's remains, July 2005
A few days later I heard from a co-worker whose sweetie worked in Dispatch that in fact there had been a report of a mountain lion getting hit that night. The story that I heard third hand- and now you're hearing it fourth so it's bound to have been warped a bit- is that there was a family that was pulled over for driving erratically. They explained to the officer that they were driving that way because they had just collided with some big animal, possibly a mountain lion. The way it was told to me, the officer didn't believe them. He cruised up and down the road and didn't see a carcass, so he didn't put that information in his official report.
I couldn't help but wonder, if we didn't have a collar on P8, would we ever have known about his fate? How many other animals do we lose everyday without even knowing? The effects of roads on wildlife in this country, and across the world, are enormous. And if we can't even keep the wildlife safe from cars inside of our National Parks, where can we?