For previous chapters on trapping mountain lions at the Grand Canyon, click here.
It was early and the light was low as the sun rose slowly over the Los Angeles basin--perfect for tracking. Usually a dense misty fog hung over the Santa Monica Mountains on mornings like this. But this was a clear, cool September morning. Just a few days before my birthday. Just a few days after Eric told me that he loved me for the first time.
He noticed the tracks first. They were visible on the wide, well-trodden path we were following, but not for long. Lions tend to prefer more cover than the trail could offer. We followed the tracks, dropping into a steep drainage, heading down the mountain. The Santa Monica Mountain range runs about 40 miles east to west from the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, to Point Mugu in Ventura County. The mountains form a barrier between the San Fernando Valley and the Los Angeles Basin, separating "the Valley" on the north and west-central Los Angeles on the south. I plowed my way through the thick mediterranean understory typical of this area, scrambling over rocks and under branches, deflecting them with my arms.
Eventually the drainage started to level out and the overstory opened up a bit. We followed a game trail through the canyon. Eric paused behind a large boulder, "Are you ready?" I nodded. We stepped around one side of the boulder to get a glimpse down canyon. I was surprised at the red hue of her coat. Maybe it was the low light, maybe it was the distance. I was looking at the very first lion I'd ever seen in the wild.
Photo caption: P2 "trapped" in the Santa Monica Mountains
She looked back at us, then turned her head away and tried to take a step forward, but stopped short. Her left front paw was in a foothold snare. She was P2, the second lion discovered to still be living in the wild urban island that is the Santa Monica Mountains, and the only known female. P1 was a male, and the only other known remaining lion inside the (relatively) small National Recreation Area. The math is simple. If P1 and P2 meet and hit it off, there will be more lions in the Santa Monicas. If not, it will be what biologists call a "local extinction." Sure, its only one little population. But if there are additional local extinctions in other habitat islands throughout their range, an all too familiar pattern develops. Eventually it leads to a full on extinction.
P2 was wearing a GPS collar, but the battery was on its last leg. We wanted to replace her collar so we could continue monitoring her movements and document her success or demise, whichever came first. We headed back up to the trail, then back to the truck. We didn't want to make her any more anxious than she was by hanging around, and we had to get the capture equipment ready. Eric made a few calls to round up the crew while we programmed the new collar. The rest of the team, along with some local press were soon on their way. Catching one of the last two lions in these mountains was no insignificant matter. The Santa Monicas are adjacent to the second largest urban metropolis in the U.S- Los Angeles. People around here are interested in how and where the lions are making a living in this urban-wildland interface. Are they crossing roads? Freeways? Passing through neighborhoods? Hunting along the highly-used trails? and When, exactly?
Historically, this kind of information has been hard to gather. Lions are supremely elusive. That's their niche, their job if you will. They hide. They glide through the landscape without a sound. They ambush their prey before it even knows they're there. Most people never see one, though they may come across tracks or old kills. Because of their stealth, they've been called the "ghost cat." But technology can shed some light on their habits. GPS collars send out precise locations stamped with the time and date to the biologists tracking the collared animals.
After waiting what felt like hours, the team was assembled. Together we headed back down toward the trapsite. It seemed further this time, the thick foliage made thicker by our heavy backpacks filled with the capture equipment we would need to sedate, collar, and document P2's capture. We crawled through patches of poison oak. Branches whipped my face and forearms in the backlash of the people ahead of me. One by one we gathered at the large boulder ahead of the trapsite and waited while Eric went ahead to assess the situation. The anticipation was palpable. For many, this would be their first lion. Those who'd assisted with the previous captures of P1 and P2 were just as anxious as the newbies. P2 and the hope she represented seemed to hold a special place in their hearts and minds.
We were dumbstruck when Eric came back shaking his head. The trap was empty. P2 had managed to pull her foot out of the snare while we were away. And just like that she was gone. I was in awe of her stealth and cunning, the sly cat that outsmarted us just when we were sure we had her. I'd just caught a glimpse of the "ghost cat" of the Santa Monicas.
For the next story in the series on Trapping Lions, click here.